Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Waffle House

Festus Mo.

Over the weekend Angel was attending a seminar on agility training for dogs. She took our most agile dog Deidre (Dedee) along with her. As such Adam and I were in charge of the house and the remaining seven dogs for the better part of a couple of days, which also meant we’d be on our own for Saturday’s critique meal. Adam and I had agreed earlier in the week that this would be a great occasion for an old standard, Waffle House.

I hadn’t been to one in fifteen or more years, in fact I couldn’t recall the last time at all but had to put some sort of date to it. That was about the time my dear sweet, yet very high maintenance daughter was finishing up high school. Between school, cheerleading, basketball and savage mood swings she worked part time at the local Waffle House in Springfield Mo. I would visit her from time to time, usually ordering nothing more than coffee.

I’m sure I ate there, pretty sure; anyway my memory of the food there was lost to the distant past.

The Place:

Festus’ Waffle house is located, as are all Waffle Houses, right next to the Interstate. We found it almost empty this very hot and humid Saturday evening. We escorted ourselves to a two-man booth in the back affording an ample view of the sizzling grill, the other patrons, and outside the window, the likewise sizzling parking lot.

The place is small, about the size of a freight car, and has no tables that accommodate more than four people, having been modeled after old-style diners. The place was staffed by three young folks, two Goth-like, life-addled, pale and wispy girls in the front and an injured, slightly older grill master. I don’t know exactly what the injury to the young man was, but it required a half cast on his right arm.

The laminated two-sided menus were already on the table. As expected breakfast fare is always available, though there was a rather impressive list of sandwiches and steaks as well. We ordered our teas, Adam’s sweet, mine not.

“They offer eggs without yolks here.” Adam noted. I explained to him that back in the old days that it was quite a source of pride for a place to serve eggs without the yolks as they were supposedly healthier that way. “There was a time, before you were born when many restaurants posted big signs proclaiming ‘Whites Only’ on their windows.” I explained.

“I don’t think that’s the same thing, dad.”

As we pondered our meals someone put some coins into a large red jukebox and a country song oozed out. From the size of the box I assumed it had the capacity to blow out the windows. It was not all that loud though and sounded muffled, as if its speaker was being smothered with a pillow.

As we waited I scanned the area for oddities, features and curios. I noticed the well appointed condiment rack at the side of the table. It contained salt/pepper of course, but also steak sauce, Tabasco sauce, and a few other items, all perfectly compartmented. Adam agreed that this was probably the most perfect rack we’d ever seen in a restaurant, sized just right, not too big or too small. We joked a bit about perfect and imperfect racks, because we’re guys.

Adam was a little quicker to decide on his food than I was, after all he was just there for the meal, I had to sample and scrutinize. I knew I would get a waffle, which was the easy part, choosing what to have with it was more difficult.

The Food:

Adam picked the Chicken bacon sandwich and hash browns, I finally decided on the 'All-Star Special' which included various options, I chose the waffle, two eggs over easy, bacon (three strips) and hash browns. I could have had biscuits and gravy or grits, or sausage, but I thought having a waffle and biscuits and gravy might trigger cholesterol overdose alarms across the state. Not that what I ordered was much less loaded, it’s just too many people’s early deaths are dismissed as inevitable, even humorous when their last meal included gravy.

I didn’t order the grits because grits, when prepared properly and carefully, are still absolutely disgusting. Creamy sand is all it is and adding butter or cinnamon merely makes it slightly less disgusting. I chose bacon instead of sausage simply because bacon is by far the single best and most perfect food ever invented.

As we waited, the grill sizzled and the aromas wafted as aromas are prone to do in a small place. There was a distinct aroma, more like an odor that hung in the background beneath the bacon and the aging cooking oil. Sweet, sickly sweet and maple-y. I knew this smell, dreaded it, hated it, feared it, but tolerated it.

I tolerate the sight and smell of maple syrup simply because I know that most people like it. Even at home there is a bottle of syrup that Angel and Adam will grab whenever I make pancakes or waffles. I understand that most people, even those close to me, like the crap. Just please, respect my vehement and somewhat condescending disagreement.

Of course there’s a story behind this.

I Digress:

Many, many years ago, before the internet, cable TV, Ipod’s, Hot Pockets and even before anyone in America had ever heard of Viet Nam, I liked syrup. I was like five or six at the time and fortunate to be born into a family that treated pork and poultry products like vitamins, and a country breakfast as the king of meals. Dad could certainly make a good pancake. Being a kid I saw a pancake as I saw bread, as a mere vessel for something even better, and preferably sweeter. I was trained, even encouraged to drown my pancakes with thick, sickly sweet syrup; Log Cabin was the family favorite.

This period of time also predated the MMR, Measles/Mumps/Rubella vaccine. So I got the mumps. I think I had measles too, and perhaps rubella, although we would have called it ‘German Measles’, since the Germans invented this particular disease and tried to wipe out poor people with it. But I digress again. This is about the mumps.

I had the mumps and either before, during or after that I had learned, I KNEW, that kids could develop lockjaw if they ate anything really sweet like syrup when they had mumps. It might be an old wives’ tale as is much of my ancient, yet ingrained knowledge, but I distinctly recall hearing it stated as fact. I have an image in my head of my father laughing at my plight as I fell to the floor from my syrup laden pancakes and desperately tried to close (or open) my locked jaw. I remember this image vividly, the aroma of syrup wafting through the air as I gagged and struggled, my father laughing.

Full disclosure: It’s only honest of me to also add that along with the crystal-clear image of my father laughing and my rolling on the floor there was also a giant, angry chicken in the room jumping up and down in a dusty, deafening, cackling fit. Long time readers will recall that this is not my first mention of giant, angry chickens haunting my otherwise pristine memories. I should probably get this examined by a professional someday.

Anyway, could anyone out there verify this mumps + syrup=lockjaw malady/myth? Several of my dear readers happen to be old wives, as is my beloved sister. Surely I’m not the only person who knows about this. I asked my lovely, much older sister about it and she said only that she remembered something about mumps, but since it was me that had them and not her, that she likely didn’t think it all that interesting, important or even memorable at the time, or since. (Worthless, absolutely worthless.) To this day however, when I use the word ‘sickly’ to describe the aroma of syrup, I mean it quite literally, it causes my brain to think of being terribly sick. (and mocked and taunted by giant angry chickens) Is it any surprise I can’t stand the stuff?

The Food: (continued)

The plates arrived. Adam’s sandwich was thick and full, a tender, perfectly prepared chicken breast. He was quite pleased with his sandwich.

The hashbrowns, his and mine, were toasty brown. My two eggs were absolutely perfect, the injured man at the grill had obviously mastered this task. The whites were perfect, done, but only. Solidified, but just barely, they were clean and pure white. The liquid yolks perfectly centered, bright and impossibly yellow. The strips of bacon were crispy, straight, and flat, arranged side by side in an almost military formation. On the plate with the eggs and hashbrowns were four half-slices of good ol’ American toast, buttered and warm. The waffle, nearly a foot in diameter, came on its own plate. Alongside it was a small condiment package; a single container of ‘butter spread’. I checked the ingredients, it was completely devoid of any actual food product, produced entirely from a chemistry set. I slathered it on anyhow just as a familiar putrid odor assaulted my nose. The thin, vacuous looking girl had shoved a decanter of syrup directly under my face.

I threw up my hands making a frantic motion that any aircraft pilot for miles around would recognize as ‘wave-off!’ causing them all to punch the thrusters and climb for the sky. She misunderstood, obviously not a pilot, and set the bottle down beside my plate. I cried out “Excuse me, please take it away.” My hands making the upside-down wave, a sweeping motion to indicate disgust and the desire to be quickly rid of a foul thing. She looked at the syrup, at me, at Adam, the syrup again. She shrugged her bony slumped shoulders and removed the decanter without ceremony, without a written apology, without any emotion whatsoever. Crisis averted. Adam was shaking his head at something, but as usual I paid him no attention.

The eggs were indeed perfect. I lanced them like they were ripe pimples and the thick fluid flowed into the hashbrowns, slowly undercutting them. The toast stayed high and dry on top of the potatoes.

I tried the waffle first. This place is called ‘Waffle House’ so it was imperative that the signature, titular dish passed muster. It needed to be superior, unlike Red Lobster’s lobster or that awful hot dog place’s hot dogs. A bad waffle at Waffle House simply would not be tolerated.

I make waffles, pretty good waffles, though not perfect. I’ve yet to find the ultimate recipe. Since I eat waffles commando style, bareback, you know without syrup, when I bite a waffle, I taste the actual waffle itself. I was not at all displeased. The texture was light, yet firm. Unlike Eggo’s which tend to be dense and heavy, these seemed dense yet light. The texture was spongy, in a good way, and the taste awakened some taste buds I had not expected to be called into service.

I took another bite and concentrated. I offered Adam a taste, he simply said it was quite good. I was looking deeper.

“Sugar, maybe just a little, but it’s there.” I told him. He nodded and covered his hashbrowns in ketchup. (I considered punching him for his act of gastronomic blasphemy, but contained my fury for the moment.) I worked the waffle across the far reaches of my tongue. “It’s not uncommon to put some sugar in pancakes and waffles.” I explained to him. But I wasn’t done, there was something else there.

“Vanilla!” I shouted under my breath. Adam looked up. “I distinctly taste vanilla!” He gazed at me proudly and respectfully, in awe, I am sure. Adam truly admires his father.

Aside from the unnecessarily fake butter, the meal was fantastic. Well, the tea sucked, but I’d ordered a cup of coffee halfway through the meal and that was that. The coffee was dark, strong and delightful. When the girl served it she held the creamer at a distance and inched it toward me, leaning back as if to brace herself for some sort of violence. “Would you like some cream?” She timidly asked through frightened eyes as the creamer drew closer to me. “No, thank you.” I replied, unable to figure out why she was so sheepish about it.

Adam made several kind remarks about the place and his food, his only negative remark was that the hash browns weren’t cooked as he preferred them, which is to say, burnt to a crisp top to bottom. I thought about explaining to him that the ketchup bath he gave them didn’t help either, but I really didn’t care enough to get that involved.

Summary:

My only real gripe aside from the nasty tea and the fake butter was the tiny napkins. We had a dispenser sitting alongside that awesome, perfectly proportioned rack, but the napkins were tiny, and not very absorbent. They would not come close to being able to contain even the most timid girly sneeze or tipped glass.

The bill came to an easy eighteen bucks, I tipped three on top of that to prove once again that I am more generous than Angel. I figured the pale, gaunt, shadow of a girl could use the extra money to buy something for her iron-poor tired blood or maybe some sort of pigment augmentation supplement.

She was actually very nice and I suppose in her own way quite friendly for a clinically depressed introvert with daddy issues. I have a soft spot in my heart for Waffle House waitresses; I know from personal experience how drama-filled and incendiary their lives can be.

So for twenty one bucks my son and I had a pretty good time, a great meal, in a place that was so down-right comfortable that even drunks and crazy people felt at ease. No pressure, no airs, no frills, just an awesome comfortable meal at a reasonable price. Okay it’s not the healthiest place to eat, the cholesterol cops have surely drawn a bead on it by now, but it’s no more unhealthy than the breakfasts your country grandma raised your parents on, and hey, look how well they turned out.

Highly recommended, highly satisfied.

Afterglow:

I checked when I got home, I looked up the recipe for Waffle House waffles. Of course the actual recipe is proprietary and super-secret, but there are many recipe sites devoted to imitating restaurant food:

1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup butter-flavored shortening

1 egg OR equivalent of egg substitute

3/4 cup half and half cream

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Yup, sugar and vanilla just as my handsome, highly trained and discerning taste buds had detected.

Look closely and you bakers, old wives and young alike, will notice that if you simply swap the baking soda for baking powder you’d have nothing more than a basic cake recipe. No wonder the waffles there are so delicate and tasty, it’s cake!

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