An ode to the yellow glow of a Waffle House
I moved to Columbus for love. But the availability of my favorite cheesy hash browns sweetened the deal.
There’s a certain brand of Southerners who believe that anything north of Mason-Dixon might as well be another planet. Where the “damn Yankees” put vinegar in their potato salad instead of Duke’s mayonnaise, and where cornbread is more like yellow cake, the kind you could cover with frosting and serve as dessert instead of crumble into your soup. Where they thrive in the cold instead of rushing to the grocery store for bread and eggs when a snowflake falls.
“Those people up there just aren’t right,” is a common lament.
I was one of those southerners. Then I met the man who would become my husband, a Columbus native brought south by a full drive to the University of Alabama and the promise of partying over 4 miles from home of his parents – no offense to Ohio State University. We had been dating for a little over a year when he asked me to move to Columbus with him.
I had two questions before I could give her an answer: 1) “Are you planning to propose at some point?” And 2) “They have waffle houses there?”
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The first question was practical. I saw no point in uprooting my life to Birmingham, Alabama, where I was based, if he didn’t see a future together. The second question was cultural; personal, even.
For as long as I can remember, Waffle House, with its traditional cuisine, has been a yellow beacon to me, welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses who yearn to eat fat. It’s a 24/7/365 gathering place, where you can buy a buffet’s worth for $10 including tip. It was accessible to me in the poorest of my families as a child, and I stumbled through college spending sleepless nights there – sometimes drunk but mostly just exhausted. With a vanilla Coke and a plate of cheesy hash browns fat enough to absorb any amount of booze, I could take on the world. Or at least finish writing my essays. I can enjoy Waffle House in this simple way because I haven’t fallen victim to its seedier side. No one has challenged me to a fight, I’ve never been denied service for the color of my skin, and no one has pointed a gun at me.
Waffle House, based outside of Atlanta, is ubiquitous throughout the South, and there were about a dozen waitresses at Waffle Houses around Birmingham who knew me by name and had memorized my very specific order. They laughed at my Hash Brown formula – one order of hash browns, double topping; double hash browns, triple toppings; three hash browns, four toppings, but they couldn’t deny its delicious flavor.
As silly as it sounds, it wasn’t something I wanted to give up and luckily I didn’t have to when I moved to Columbus.
The truth is that I was too scared to communicate with my then boyfriend, I was scared. Birmingham was where all my friends and family were. I had freelanced for half a dozen local newspapers and magazines and felt like I had hit my stride as a writer. I rubbed shoulders with local artists, musicians, activists and politicians, all of whom did important work and made me feel important by my closeness to them. I wanted to be a person who does things worthy of attention, and just when I was about to become who I wanted to be, the man I love asked me to leave.
What if I gave up on everything—physically distancing myself from friends and family and ending my freelance career—and we broke up? What if I found myself alone in a town where I didn’t know anyone? I would survive, I knew that, but taking my chances with this man and his town felt like I was borrowing trouble that I could pretty much leave alone. But the heart wants what it wants.
The intestine also wants what it wants. In Columbus, Waffle House became a symbol of all that I missed at home and all that I felt like I had given up to be here. Almost every waffle house looks the same – hanging light globes, a lunch counter, four-person booths, an open kitchen with a sizzling flat grill. Slipping into a cabin, you could be just about anywhere: any city, any state, any bright freeway exit at night. In my imagination, entering Waffle House was like a portal to Alabama.
Here Waffle House came to represent what I felt I had lost. But as I grew up in this town as an abandoned Midwestern Southerner, I began to introduce Waffle House to new Midwestern friends. Although restaurants are present here, they are not as common and I met a number of people who had never been there. A friend who moved to Columbus from Des Moines shortly after I arrived said, “I didn’t know Waffle Houses existed! I read about them in a novel by John Green.
Waffle House has become a litmus test for new friends. If I liked someone enough to invite them with me to Waffle House, that meant I saw potential there. If they were too critical of my restaurant selection, I figured they were too classy for us to have a meaningful relationship. I have a penchant for things considered unscholarly. If you don’t like an establishment like Waffle House, we are fundamentally incompatible.
I knew for sure that I had made a best friend here when Harmony, one of my closest friends from Columbus, and I went to Waffle House one night and a man with a high intense erupted and went wild around the restaurant. As he was screaming and waving his arms, I said, “Should we run and lock ourselves in the bathroom?”
“No,” Harmony said, puzzled. “Stay still and don’t make any sudden moves, and he won’t even see us.
And he didn’t. A shrunken waitress, probably a graduate summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks, defused the situation without calling the cops and sent him struggling into the night. My friend and I went back to eating our hash browns, undisturbed. This is the true test offered by Waffle House: if you can accept the cross section of humanity that crosses its threshold, I know you are at least a half-decent person.
In this way, Waffle House went from being a place where I remembered everything I lost by coming here to a place of new beginnings. Friendships solidified and I learned about my new town by visiting its various waffle houses. And the day a waitress from the Waffle House at 161 greeted me by name and asked if I wanted my usual order of hash browns, I felt right at home.
Even better: in the evening after a full day of wedding festivities, my new husband and I showed up at the often empty Waffle House on the High Street north of Worthington, still in suits and wedding dress with at least half our party wedding in tow; the waitresses clapped and gave us hash browns on the house. We tipped enough to hope they would keep cheering until morning, or at least until it was time for their smoke break.
And when a college student I didn’t know, seeing my wedding dress, pulled me into the bathroom to ask my opinion on her relationship with an unnamed Ohio State footballer, I liked her immediately, even though she had cheated on the football player with her best friend – also an OSU footballer who will remain anonymous. That’s the magic of Waffle House: it brings people together in the most unexpected ways.
These days, I’m even willing to take the risk of driving in the snow to follow the siren song of that bright yellow sign. Last year my car left the freeway and ended up in a ditch during a winter storm. After treating myself for injuries that weren’t there, I marveled that I managed to go so slow that the airbag didn’t deploy. There wasn’t even a dent on the fender. I laughed, imagining what the paramedics would have said to my husband if I had died. In the late hour, after midnight, on this stretch of I-71, there could only be one destination. I imagined my tombstone: “She died doing what she loved: salivating at the mere thought of Waffle House.”
After getting my car back on the freeway, I considered that even though I only wanted hash browns before, I deserved them now, having cheated death in my pursuit of their greasy kind. But, that night at least, I decided to turn my back on Waffle House. I had tempted fate and doubted I would be so lucky twice, so I came home to one of the few things I love more than Waffle House: the man who brought me north in this arctic tundra in the first place. He’s a beacon brighter than any restaurant, and to love him is to love the city he loves, just like to love me is to love Waffle House. In Columbus, we have both, and when my people in Birmingham ask me which city I call home, I can answer truthfully: home is here.
This story is from the February 2022 issue of Monthly Columbus.