For the Love of Sandwiches

History tells us that John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, had a habit of dining on salted beef between two slices of toasted bread while at the gambling table. Hence, the sandwich was born. It was such a great idea that it was named after him! I know a lot of other foods are named after people, but it’s still impressive.

Like any right-thinking American, I enjoy a well-made sandwich. I even enjoy a poorly made one as long as it has tasty ingredients. Bread, meat or a reasonable facsimile, veggies, optional condiments–all in a handheld form and easy to eat. It’s dining simplicity as its finest.

Here in Kentucky we eat hot browns, which we call sandwiches, but they really aren’t. White bread, layered with turkey, cheese sauce, bacon and tomato and then broiled until hot and brown. It’s what’s called an “open-faced sandwich,” which is no sandwich at all since you can’t pick it up. If you eat it with a fork, it’s not a sandwich.

You can put any kind of meat or meat product on a sandwich–turkey, ham, chicken, bologna, roast beef, liverwurst, Spam, pastrami, salami, all manner of fish, olive loaf–you name it. When I was a kid a neighbor offered me a souse sandwich. I declined. If you are familiar with souse, you know why. If you aren’t, click here. Get it, now? The same neighbor once asked my brother “You wanna mater sammich?” He declined. Offering someone a sandwich is a friendly gesture for sure, even if the “sammich” in question is itself questionable.

I’m not sure a tomato constitutes a proper sandwich. It’s like a partial sandwich. When my wife was a kid, she ate mashed potato sandwiches. That just seems wrong to me. Mashed potatoes should be eaten with your sandwich, not on it. Just because you call something a sandwich does not make it so. Perhaps not coincidently, my wife is the only person I know you does not like sandwiches. Somehow, we’ve remained together.

I’m not suggesting that all sandwiches require meat. You can have a cheese sandwich, even though the meat is missing. Even better, you can fry it in butter and call it grilled cheese. Grilled food is healthy, right? I ate a grilled cheese sandwich with country ham, bacon and pork rinds on it. I still considered it merely a grilled cheese sandwich. The angioplasty was extra. Eggs also make for a good sandwich. Fried or scrambled–it doesn’t matter.

Peanut butter and jelly is perhaps the greatest American sandwich. It must, of course, be grape jelly. Anything else is an abomination. Elvis loved fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. My elementary school served fabulous peanut butter sandwiches. I asked my mom to get the same kind of peanut butter. Mother, a home economics teachers back when there were such things, groaned and gently noted that this “peanut butter” was cut with copious amounts of corn syrup to make it stretch further. We weren’t doing that in our home. Oh well.

I’ll admit to being a bit of a purist with my sandwiches. Nothing too complex for me. The simpler the better. If I want a complicated meal, I’ll order one. There’s nothing more disheartening than to approach a sandwich shop counter anticipating a simple and tasty ham and cheese sandwich, only to see this on the menu:

Ham & Cheese: Organic, free range ham topped with aged Alpaca cheese, persimmon dill chutney, pickled capers and sesame cayenne mustard. Your choice of zucchini, rutabaga or Belgian flax bread.

What the hell do I do now? My ham sandwich is lost in an olio of ingredients which render the ham an afterthought. I can only awkwardly order the sandwich like this:

“I’d like the ham and cheese, but I just want ham and cheese on it. And do you have any other kind of cheese and maybe some regular whole wheat bread?”

Now, I’ve ordered a sandwich which isn’t even on the menu. Oh, they’ll probably accommodate me, but I’ll be judged. Plus, I’m sure they’ll spit on it. Let’s don’t even discuss the likelihood of the order being totally screwed up, too. Don’t do this to a sandwich. Keep it simple. If someone wants to befoul it with all manner of toppings, make that an option, not part of the basic sandwich.

While we’re at it, consider condiments. Ketchup (or catsup for the more refined of you), mustard and mayonnaise are the bellwethers. Heinz makes the only ketchup acceptable to my palate, but I never know what brand is on a sandwich. Fortunately, ketchup doesn’t go on very many sandwiches, even though it’s quite tasty on almost everything. Mustard is great for ham sandwiches and a must for a fried bologna sandwich. Beyond those, it’s a tad questionable.

Mayonnaise is the most frequently used condiment. I must now–publicly and definitely–state my objection to this practice. Mayonnaise consists of oil (why eat oil?), egg yolk (okay but the grossest part of the otherwise fine egg) and vinegar (completely grotesque). How could combining these elements create an acceptable sauce? It’s like 80% fat! Why not just smear lard on your sandwich? (Ooh, that’s not a half-bad idea). People try to make it better by adding spices like cayenne pepper or something else to mask the taste. Then there’s Miracle Whip, which is kind of like mayonnaise, yet somehow different. It’s called salad dressing, even though I’ve never seen it put on a salad. If you want to make sure that I don’t take a bite of your sandwich, drench it in mayonnaise. And don’t tell me to scrape off the mayonnaise. That doesn’t work. Mayonnaise residue remains.

Let’s be clear about something else. Hamburgers aren’t sandwiches. They are burgers. How do I know this? Because they have meat patties on them and are served on buns. True, a sandwich can be served on a bun, too, but it is the basic pattyness of the burger which distinguishes it. I’ll grant you that if one were totally insane and served a meat patty between two slices of bread, it might be a sandwich. Might. I once heard an older person use the term “hamburger sandwich.” I wanted to punch her in the throat.

Onions are another issue. Understand that onions themselves–unlike, say, Brussel sprouts–are okay and can add a lot to many dishes. Why pile raw onions on a sandwich? You may as well have an onion sandwich. What–the taste of chicken isn’t good enough for you? Are you so utterly demented that you think it should taste like onions? Don’t just randomly throw onions on a sandwich. For God’s sake, at least tell a person before doing it.

Unlike onions, pickles have no redeeming value. I know, I know…you LOVE pickles, right? Well, good for you. They’re awful. I surmise that at one time cucumbers were plentiful and there wasn’t much else to eat. Since cukes won’t last forever, someone decided to preserve them and add a little flavor to them. Hence, we have the pickle. It was better than starvation, I guess. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now. Removing them for one’s sandwich does little good because of the pervasive pickle juice which saturates the bread and anything else it touches. Everything ends up pickled. Here’s an idea: just soak your sandwich in salt water and vinegar and dig in.

Tomatoes. They’re terribly offensive to me. Now, do NOT tell me that if I love ketchup, I have to love tomatoes. Ketchup is chock full of sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup (which, by the way, is the BEST kind of corn syrup) and flavorings and whatnot. Also, that gelatinous, seedy, embryonic goo is removed from ketchup. The tomato adds nothing of value to a sandwich, unless it’s a tomato sandwich, which we’ve already dismissed as a non-sandwich. Ugh.

As an aside, have you eaten a sugar sandwich? Years ago, I read a story about a boxer named Danny “Little Red” Lopez. He was so poor growing up, that’s what he ate! I’d try one. No onions, tomatoes or pickles, please. Hold the mayo, too. But I digress.it’

How about cheese? Like any patriot in our great country, I’m fond of American cheese, but I’m no xenophobe. The Swiss gave us both tremendous pocket knives and damn good cheese. Cheddar, mild or sharp, is always a winner. I don’t know what Monterrey Jack is, but I like it. I grew up eating Government Cheese, a dazzling cheese product that goes good on everything. Of course, we can’t leave well enough alone. Gouda cheese is now offered. How about Edam, whatever the hell that is? Bleu cheese? Hell’s bells, is that even cheese? It’s more like something you’d discard in the cheese-making process. Provolone is a little weird, but I can handle it. Mozzarella is good is a sandwich– a meatball or a chicken parmesan sandwich. Oh, and speaking of parmesan–it’s technically a cheese but more like some kind of seasoning. That’s why it generally it isn’t offered on sandwiches.

I almost forgot about bread. Look, bread is bread. Let’s don’t get too creative with it. White, whole wheat, multi-grain, maybe focaccia–we don’t need more choices. Options with seeds or odd colors or shapes don’t enhance my experience. Rye bread is weird, probably the result of some ill-conceived bakery experiment. Edible? Yes. Better than normal bread? No.

It’s starting to sound like I don’t like sandwiches. Maybe I don’t. Then again, consider that John Montagu had a storied career in politics and the military, yet he remains best known for eating salted beef between two pieces of toast. If such simplicity was good enough for the Earl himself, it should be good enough for all of us. Now, go make me a sandwich.

©www.thetrivialtroll.com 2017

 

 

 

Fast Food Follies: A Brief Personal History

Like most, if not all, Americans, I’ve eaten quite a bit of fast food.  Several years ago, I made a concerted effort to eliminate it as a regular part of my diet, and I have done just that.  Nevertheless, I still occasionally dine at these well-known eateries, especially when traveling

I’m not one of those who condemns fast food, mind you.  I don’t even mind the pink slime that became an Internet sensation.  Hey, if it cooks up into something tasty and moderately safe to eat, I’m fine with it.  Fast food gives us consistency.  When you travel for work as I do, it’s comforting to know what you’re ordering.  A Big Mac is a Big Mac whether you order it in Hawaii or Pikeville, Kentucky.

What is fast food?  My definition is that: (1) You must order at a counter or drive thru; (2) The food must be subject to uniform preparation rules; (3) You must pay when you order; (4) the food must be served in paper bags and wrappers; and (5) the restaurant must at least strive to get your food to you quickly (i.e., while standing at the counter or sitting in the drive thru).  I except delis and sub shops from this definition for no reason other than they just don’t seem to fit.  You can come up with your own definition.  I really don’t care. After all, this is about me, not you.

Recently, I was standing in line at a Dairy Queen and pondered how much time I’ve spent waiting for food in one of these establishments.  I gave up trying to figure it out, concluding that it was just a hell of a lot.  It did, though, make me think about my long history with fast food.  It’s been a quite a trip.

RAY KROC WAS A GOOD GUY

Through most of my childhood in Harlan County, Kentucky, we didn’t have fast food.  The closest things were a couple of drive-in restaurants, but they weren’t all that fast.  We did, however, travel outside the county often.  One of the highlights of such treks was passing through Corbin, Kentucky.  Corbin had a McDonald’s.

Dad would always stop and get us something from McDonald’s.  Burgers, McNuggets, Egg McMuffins and french fries–they were fascinating taste treats.  Dad would usually send me in to get the food.  I loved it.

It was  1978, when I was 15 years old, that I had my encounter with Ray Kroc.  For the uninformed, Kroc was the founder of McDonald’s and its CEO for many, many years.  As a young baseball fan, I also knew that he was the owner of the San Diego Padres.  I used this to my advantage.

On the way to a Cincinnati Reds game, we stopped at the Corbin McDonald’s.  I was the only patron at the counter.  The workers ignored me.  They were engaged in some sort of inane banter behind the counter.  Now, you must know that, even as an adolescent, I had a bit of an overblown view of myself.  Thus, I became increasingly agitated. Finally, I said:  “Hey!  Customer here!!”  The young lady at the register gave me a look of contempt and said “Just a second” and continued talking.  Eventually, she took my order, but I was incensed.  So, I wrote Ray Kroc a letter.

I had a written quite a few fans letters to baseball players.  So, I knew that a letter addressed to “San Diego Padres, Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California” would get to Ray.  I wrote him and told him of the vile treatment I received.  I typed the letter, so as not to indicate that I was a sullen teenager.  It was heartfelt and my indignation dripped from it.

What I didn’t expect was that he would read it.  He did, and he wrote back:

IMG

Ray was none too pleased with the laggards in Corbin.

As you can see, he wasn’t happy. As Ray promised, I also got a letter from a Regional Manager for McDonald’s.  He said that he had heard from Mr. Kroc and offered his apologies (and gift certificates).  The manager of the restaurant wrote me too (with gift certificates, of course).  I felt like kind of big deal.  It took us a long time to use all those gift certificates.

Ray Kroc was a generous man, leaving millions to charity when he died.  He was pretty cool, too.

GOD SAVE THE (BURGER) QUEEN

To the best of my recollection, Harlan County’s first fast food restaurant was Burger Queen.  That’s not a typo– Queen, not King.  Its logo looked like this:

burgerqueen

As you might expect, they sold burgers.  They were thin little meat patties mashed between a tasteless bun.  They were exceptionally salty, too.  BQ also sold mediocre fried chicken.  The Cherry Sprites, by contrast, were excellent.  We loved the place.

(Okay, I know you Harlan Countians out there will point out that we had a Kentucky Fried Chicken first, but I just can’t count that.  I don’t know why–maybe it’s the lack of burgers).

For you young folks, fast food restaurants used keep piles of burgers under heat lamps–no microwave ovens.  If you wanted anything non-standard, you had to wait.  I am well-known for my aversion to condiments–mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, etc.  These befoul burgers and are unacceptable.  BQ struggled with this concept.  I always ordered two plain cheeseburgers, and they rarely got it straight.

One day, I met a couple of friends at BQ.  I ordered my burgers and took them to the table.  I unwrapped them, and-of course–they were smeared with ketchup, mustard and pickles–all the crap which would trigger my gag reflex.

My disgust showed immediately, drawing the attention of another patron, a rather rough-looking fellow with long, greasy hair.  He walked to our table and asked:  “Did they f–k up your order, buddy?”  I said “Yeah, they were supposed to be plain.”  My new friend advised:  “Look here, take them damn burgers up there and stomp on ’em right in front of that bitch! I’ll do it for you, by God!”  Despite the appeal, I declined his suggestion.  I did get a couple of new burgers, though.

That’s my Burger Queen story.  It’s not much of a story, but that’s it.  Burger Queen became Druther’s (slogan–“I’d Ruther Go to Druther’s“), but it was pretty much the same food.  Druther’s died out, except for one left in Campbellsville, Kentucky.  I know.  I saw it in the summer of 2012:

Druthers_IMG2008

I asked a local about it, and he said it was the last one.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d like to think so.

FAST BUT NOT FRIENDLY

When I was in high school, Harlan experienced a bit of a fast food revolution.  Kentucky Fried Chicken and Druthers were joined by Wendy’s.  Pizza Hut also came on board, sort of a fast food pizza palace.  My friends and I made use of Druther’s, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s as hangouts–sometimes in the parking lot but often inside.  Three or four of us would order Cokes and we’d sit there for hours (maybe it just seemed like hours).  We weren’t really good customers, and we weren’t always welcome.  A tale from Wendy’s illustrates the point.

Late one night, two friends and I were sitting at a table in Wendy’s, nursing our colas.  I was pouring salt into a pile on the table while we discussed the news of the day.  At some point, I asked if perhaps we should order something else in order to justify our presence.  One of my cohorts remarked:  “Hey, we bought Cokes.  They can’t make us leave.”  One of the employees at the business end of push broom heard this remark and said:  “Then, you can sweep up this f—ing mess, you mother——s!”  We took this as a subtle cue to leave, only to discover that we were locked in! While we fumbled with the lock, our former hostess hurled more invectives our way. One of my companions, in an ill-conceived effort to defuse the situation, said:  “Look, bitch, why don’t you just fly away on that f—ing broom?!?!” The end result was that we were banned from Wendy’s.  It has been over 30 years, and I have never set foot in that establishment since.  As far as I know, the ban did not extend to all Wendy’s.  I’m please to say that I have been to many others over the years without incident.

Today, I occasionally encounter unfriendly workers.  You know them, too, I’m sure.  They blankly stare at you with what my father called a “hang-dog” look on their faces.  They mutely take your order, perhaps muttering a disingenuous “welcome” after you thank them.  I try not to be offended.  They don’t like their jobs and no civility on my part will change that.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID

The old military acronym KISS or “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” applies to dealing with fast food establishments. My aversion to condiments makes this difficult for me.  For example, here’s a recent exchange with a McDonald’s employee:

HER:  Can I help you?

ME:  Two Angus Snack Wraps.  No onion or sauce please.

HER:  Do you want cheese?

ME:  Well, yes.  No onion and no sauce, though.

HER:  Do you want lettuce?

ME:  Yes, yes.  Lettuce is fine. No onion.  No sauce.

Here’s what I got:  Two Snack Wraps with no cheese but onions.  I blame myself.  I threw off the order of the fast food system.  It isn’t designed for gadflies like me.

Another thing is that I’m confident that they spit on special orders.  I try to keep it simple.  If there is something festooned with all manner of objectionable toppings, I just avoid it.

TAKING THE FAST OUT OF FAST FOOD

One obvious advantage of fast food is the fast part.  We knowingly trade careful food preparation for speed and uniformity.  We want our food quickly–at least I do.

Here’s a suggestion for everyone.  If you and–say–5 of your family members walk up to the counter, take note if there is a lone person behind you.  Allow that person and his simple, one-person order to go ahead of you.  Think of it as the fast food equivalent of playing through in golf.  Likewise, if you are a lone patron but are placing an order for scads of other people, be considerate of those behind you. Many of us are impatient and explosively violent when our patience is taxed.

Another suggestion is to have your act together when you order.  If you need to ponder the menu and consult others before ordering, YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO ORDER! Get the Hell out of the way!  I just can’t stress this point enough.  It’s a fast food restaurant.  The menu should be well-known to you.  There are even pictures of all the food on the wall, for God’s sake.  It can’t be all that confusing.  Your family members should also get their heads out of their…well, you get it.  If you must have a family meeting at the register, you should be at home eating together in order to become more familiar with your family’s eating habits.

The restaurants themselves can help us, too.  How about having more than one person working at the register?  I fully understand why only one person can take orders at the drive-thru.  When only person takes orders inside, this happens:

mcdonalds

Your author is tormented by one register plus a confused family placing order.  Note the obvious disgust of the arthritic biker in front of me.

If our society is to continue to function, this kind of thing can’t be allowed. I’m confident that the Roman Empire’s decay began over something like this.

CONVENIENCE

Convenience is the great calling card of fast food.  Believe it or not, there was a time when you could drive great distances in America without finding decent food–unless you were lucky enough to encounter a Stuckey’s.  Now, we have fast food at almost every Interstate exit and in most towns of any size.

The restaurants also have restrooms, and most of them are reasonably clean.  If one must make a–[ahem]–major transaction, cleanliness is paramount.  There are no condom machines in them, either.  I have never been comfortable with the public condom machine.  What kind of person uses those?  Worse yet, I don’t want to be confined in a men’s room with one of those folks.  I have nightmares of washing my hands when I glance some demented drifter in the mirror opening a condom.  While we have many fine truck stops in our great land, the combination of condom machines and showers just makes me uncomfortable for obvious reasons.

You are also fairly safe to nap in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant.  What?  You don’t do that?  Well, you should.  Napping at a rest area or truck stop is just an invitation to a serial killer.

THE FUTURE

Despite pleas from the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Obama, I suspect that fast food is here to stay.  I’m fine with that.  Technological advances will likely make the food faster and better for our children and grandchildren.  I envision a day when lobster tails, deadly blow fish and prime beef will be served to me by pimply faced teenagers and ex-cons.  I also hope that someone will perfect my idea of the “reverse” microwave oven which freezes hot things in seconds.  I’m not sure how they’d use it, but I’m sure someone will figure it out.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to indulge my weakness for Dairy Queen’s Reese’s Cup Blizzard and McDonald’s French fries.

Remember, too, that a lot of folks working behind the counter don’t like their jobs. Someday, robots will take our orders.  Until then, teenagers and part-time workers will have to do. Be courteous, unless of course they’ve made you wait too long.  After all, it is fast food.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The Way of the Waffle

My neighborhood Waffle House. Like most people in this part of the country, I live close to one.

“I love Waffle House, and not just because watching someone fry an egg while they’re smoking reminds me of my dad”

Jim Gaffigan

I travel by car quite a bit.  Some of it is for work and some for my son’s baseball teams.  I’m not a big fan of hotels, but I enjoy seeking out places to eat.  I’m not picky, either.  Sometimes, I’ll just see some place on the side of the road and think:  I wonder if that place makes decent food?  In the past year alone, I’ve eaten at The White Flash (Jackson, KY), Dave’s BBQ (Guthrie, KY), Beaver Creek Restaurant (Topmost, KY), Big Shanty Smokehouse (Kennesaw, GA), Bridge Street Cafe (Fort Walton Beach, FL), One Place–Two Tastes (Somewhere in TN) and other off-the-radar spots.  Some are better than others, but they’re all good.  When I travel, I try to avoid fast food (expect Dairy Queen Blizzards) or chain restaurants.  The one big exception is Waffle House.

If you live in the South, you know Waffle House.  They’re everywhere, and they’re all the same.  They have a big yellow and black sign that simply says “WAFFLE HOUSE” in block letters.  They’re small restaurants with a few booths and a counter where those of us dining solo are seated.  They all have jukeboxes.  According the Waffle House website, they’ve been around since 1955.  I’m guessing that they looked the same in 1955 as they do now.  Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I know what you’re thinking:  “Why Waffle House?  It’s the poor man’s Cracker Barrel!”  Here’s why:  I love it.  It’s never crowded (except after the bars close).  The people are nice.  The food is good and reasonably priced.  More than all that is the Waffle House Experience.  It is it’s own world.

If you sit at the counter (on a stool, no less) you will be within feet of the griddle and, of course, the waffle makers.  You’ll see the cook sweating over your meal, hear the stories from the regulars and learn a lot about the folks working there.

The waitresses all call me “honey” or “sweetie.”  They refill my coffee constantly.  They can be a rough-looking bunch, but they’re all out of Central Casting when it comes to diner waitresses.  I love it.  Just this week I was at a Waffle House in Northern Kentucky and heard this exchange:

Customer:  “Where’s Mary?”

Waitress:  “Oh, honey, she don’t work here no more.  She got accepted to this big tattoo institute.”

Customer:  “Oh, hell, she’ll be back.”

Waitress:  “I don’t think so.  This is one of the biggest tattoo institutes in the country.  It’s hard to get accepted.”

Customer:  “She’ll be back.”

Waitress:  “We’ll see, honey.   She’s good.  She’s done a bunch of tattooing for people.”

Where else can I hear that?  Do you think they carry on like that at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse?  Hell, no!  I didn’t even know there WERE tattoo institutes, much less that they have high admissions standards.  I hope Mary has great success and why wouldn’t she if she graduates from one of the biggest tattoo institutes?

You know something that you’ll never hear at a Waffle House?  Nice job cleaning up!

Jim Gaffigan

I’ll admit that most Waffle Houses have a certain look to them.  They might need a thorough scrub down.  The tables might be a little greasy.  Don’t look at the waffle irons.  They need cleaning.

A couple of years ago, I was driving back to Lexington from Western Kentucky.  It was getting late, and I was pretty hungry.  I passed several exits along the way until I saw the familiar yellow sign of the Waffle House beckoning.  Imagine my disappointment when I approached the door and saw this notice:

“DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH.   THIS ESTABLISHMENT WAS RATED “C” ON ITS MOST RECENT INSPECTION.  IT WILL BE REINSPECTED WITHIN THE NEXT SEVEN DAYS.  IF ALL VIOLATIONS HAVE NOT BEEN CORRECTED, IT SHALL BE CLOSED.”

You see, I’m a bit of a germaphobe.  I know that to get a C on a restaurant inspection, you’ve got some bad business going on.  Maybe you’re storing kitchen utensils in the toilet or your cook has TB.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  The lure was strong as was my reticence.  I went in anyway.

As you might expect, there were no customers in sight, just the usual hard-living waitress and the sinewy cook.  I was greeted with the familiar “Hello, honey, what can I get you to drink?”  I ordered my standard black coffee and water and then ventured “Looks like y’all had some problems with the Health Department.”  The following ensued:

Waitress:  “Oh, lord, I wish we could take down that sign.  People just look at it, get back in their cars and take off.  I seen you lookin’ at it, too.”

ME [exaggerating]:  “Well, yeah, I mean, it covers about half the door.”

Waitress:  “Well, don’t you worry about it, honey.”

ME [lying through my teeth]:  I’m not worried about it.  What happened? [an astute observer would realize that I was, in fact, worried about it]

Waitress:  We had a problem with the refrigerators and some cleaning supplies, but it’s took care of now.

Refrigerator?  I had some experience with this issue.  I was at a bowling alley late one night and decided that a cheeseburger would hit the spot.  When I ordered the burger, I was told “We don’t have no cheese.  Our refrigerator busted yesterday.”  At this point, you should be aware that I was once fond of strong drink which clouded my judgment.  “Well, I’ll just have a burger, no cheese.”  And so I did.  Had I not been in my cups, I would have realized that the proper refrigeration of ground beef is no less critical than that of cheese, perhaps even more so.  24 hours of food borne illness taught me this lesson.

The Waffle House cook sensed my unease and said:  “We’ve had everybody in the world up our ass.   Health Department, the owner, my boss, Waffle House.  This place is so clean now, you could eat off the floor.”  I looked around and realized that the unfortunate dust-up with the authorities had, in fact, resulted in the cleanest Waffle House I’ve ever seen–before or since.  My fears assuaged, I ordered a ham, egg and cheese wrap and side of grits.  Excellent as always.  Even better, no ill after effects.

Now, I don’t really think Waffle House is dirty.  That’s just part of its ambiance.  It’s made to look filthy.  Really, if you knock an ash tray over in your plate, whose fault is that?  Okay, maybe there are some food scraps lying around.  Take a look at your own house.  Better hope the Health Department doesn’t show up.  It’s possible that they wipe down every table all day long with that same rag, but how do you really know?  It’s Greasy Spoon Chic.  Enjoy.

“Imagine a gas station bathroom that sells waffles.”

Jim Gaffigan

What about the food?  It’s good! Some of it is great.  My personal favorite is the egg and cheese wrap, whether with ham, bacon or sausage.  Side of grits, too.  Good stuff.

The hash browns are as good as they get.  They’re fried up right there on the griddle.  You can have them diced (ham), capped (mushrooms), smothered (cheese) and various other ways.  I had some just last week from a cook preparing his very first meal.  I had ordered grits, but he seemed proud of the hash browns:

COOK/WAITER:  Here are your grits, sir.

ME [staring at the hash browns]:  Excuse me?

COOK/WAITER:  Your grits.  I’ve never made them before.  Do they look alright?

ME:  Uh, these are hash browns.

COOK/WAITER [after a long pause]:   Oh, man! I’m sorry! Man!

ME:  Don’t worry about it.  I love hash browns. Plus, you can find out if you did them right for the next customer.

I was pleased to tell him that they were excellent.  He was quite proud of himself.  He told me that he was planning to go to college.  I hope he does.

Did you know that Waffle House is the world’s leading server of T-Bone steaks?  I don’t know if that’s true, but they have a sign that says so.  Think about that.  More T-bones than Ponderosa, Longhorn Steakhouse, Texas Roadhouse–you name it.  Say what you will, but that’s impressive, assuming it’s true.  Even if it’s not true, the hubris required to make such an outrageous claim is impressive in its own right.  World’s leading server of waffles?  You wouldn’t even question that.  T-bones?  Wow.

What of the waffles?  I’m sorry to report that they’re just waffles.  Nothing special, really.  Oh, you can get chocolate chips or peanut butter which are both good.  Honestly, if you have a waffle iron, you can do just as well.  Then again, the waffle itself is a pretty lousy main course.  Pancakes are far superior, but I assume that IHOP would battle over the name Pancake House.  I don’t even understand why there are waffles.  It’s lot easier to make pancakes.  Are pancakes just too boring looking?  I don’t get it.

“How Can You Freak Out on a Frog?”

Waiter, Waffle House

The people who work at Waffle House are a different breed.  I like them.  They have good stories.  I stopped at Waffle House on a particularly desolate stretch of Interstate.  There’s just me, a guy taking orders and the cook.  They’re both smoking, which I assume is a health code violation or damn sure should be.

WAITER:  “Hey, have you heard about them hallucinogenic frogs?

ME:  “What’s that?”

Waiter:  “Frogs, man.  They’re hallucinogenic. You lick ’em and freak out.”

Me:  “Oh, that.  I’ve been hearing that story since I was a kid.”

Waiter:  “No, man.  It’s true.  They’re in California.  It’s all over the Internet.”

Me:  “Okay.  How does it work?”

Waiter:  “You just grab ’em and lick ’em.  Then, you freak out.”

Me:  “Huh.”

Waiter:  “They’re supposed to be some around here.  I know a guy lookin’ for ’em.  I reckon he’s just grabbin’ frogs and lickin’ ’em until he finds the right one.”

Me [laughing now]:  “I guess there’s no other way to do it, is there?”

Waiter:  “How can you freak out on a frog?  Who the hell figured that out anyway?  Did he just start lickin’ frogs for some reason?  Of course, somebody had to start snorting bath salts, too.  My mommy makes homemade bath salts, and nobody will buy them now, because they think it’s dope.  Wild.”

I have nothing to add to that story.

“There’s a subculture out there that’s off the grid, buddy.” 

My Dad

Dad may have been talking about Waffle House.  I’m not talking about those who show up drunk at 2:00 AM for a T-bone dinner.  I mean folks like me, who show up at 2:00 PM to eat breakfast.  I’m talking about the regular crowd with their homemade tattoos and dental hygiene issues.  We are the Waffle House subculture.  We order our food off menus that double as place mats.  The menus have pictures of the food in case we don’t what the food looks like (or can’t read).  We know what we want and where to get it.  We just look for the yellow sign just off any Interstate exit in the South.

I’ll continue to eat at Waffle House.  I will have plenty of opportunities, too.  I once read (at a Waffle House, no less) that there are over 1500 Waffle Houses.  1500.  I have one within walking distance of my office, in fact.

I don’t ever take my family to Waffle House.  I go there alone.  To be among my people.  Besides, the tables are too small for five people.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

Eating for One

I’ve been on a road trip this week to Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  My son is playing in a baseball tournament.  I’m flying solo.  The rest of my clan stayed home in Kentucky.  I haven’t seen a whole lot of my son down here, except for his games and when he needs some cash.  In the name of team-building, the players stay together and ride a bus to and from their games.  The result is that I’ve had a lot of “me” time, which suits me to a tee.

I’ve been eating  my meals solo, too.  Yeah, I’m that guy, the pathetic fellow dining alone.  I know this conjurs up images of a serial killer sitting in his tool shed eating gruel from a human skull.  It doesn’t?  Okay, maybe I’m the only one who thinks about that, but that’s for another blog. I’m quite accustomed to dining out alone.  I travel a fair amount for work, and it’s usually solo.  This time, it’s different.  I’m actually on vacation and eating out among the vacationers.  They don’t eat alone.  But, I do.  Here are a few of my observations from this week.

Where to Sit

Would you like to sit at the bar?  I’m always asked this, and I think I know why.  If you sit at the bar, it’s not obvious to the rest of the diners that you’re alone.  You won’t trouble them by looking like a disturbed loner.  Also, if you eat alone, I suppose there’s a more than fair chance you have a drinking problem.  Sitting you within arm’s length of gallons of alcohol is just good business.

I don’t sit at the bar.  Why not?  First, I don’t drink, so I don’t need access to the bar.  Second, the few times I’ve eaten at a bar, I invariably will be seated next to a talkative drunk.  Mind you now, even though I don’t drink, I have no problem with those that do.  Unfortunately, I don’t like making conversation with strangers or listening to some slurred discourse on topics in which I have no interest.  I know now why people avoided me when I drank.

The exception to sitting at a bar is Waffle House, the poor man’s Cracker Barrel.  Okay, it’s not a bar.   It’s a counter, but it’s the same basic set-up.  You eat beside someone you don’t know and, being Waffle House, he may well be drunk.  I’m okay with it, because it fits the ambiance of Waffle House.  I can also watch them prepare my meal.  It’s like sitting in someone’s kitchen.  Now,the  cooking utensils seem really nasty, but they’re not.  Waffle Houses usually have good health department grades.  Who cares if the cook’s flop sweat occasionally drips into your scrambled eggs?  The food’s good and cheap.  Down here in Florida, I’ve eaten breakfast at Waffle House every day.  Bacon, egg and cheese wrap; side of grits; coffee; and water for $7.95.  Good eats.

I should also note that I do not include fast food restaurants and Cracker Barrel as dining alone, because they are set up that.  No one cares if you eat alone at a fast food restaurant.  People are there to get something quick with the assurance that they know how it tastes.  Cracker Barrel has really good food, and I’ve eaten alone at many of them.  It’s no big deal.  They cater to travelers, many of whom are by themselves.  It’s not a big deal to go solo for a stack of pancakes at 2:00 in the afternoon.

This week has been different.  I’ve been to several sit-down restaurants alone.  I usually have a copy of USA Today and my reading glasses hanging from the front of my shirt.  I prefer a booth.  Why?  I don’t know.  It just seems a little more private, plus the tables usually give me more room to spread out my paper.  It also seems like fewer people are looking at me.  They DO look at me, you know.  All of them.

Attention Please

Dining alone, I never seem to have a problem with service.  It’s odd, because one would think that a large table of customers–and potential tippers–would merit the most attention.  Not so.  I get checked on all the time.  I think it’s because I seem pitiful.  Look at that poor man who has no friends.  We should be nice to him.  I like that.  Coffee and water always topped off.  I never have to wait long for my check. It’s like they opened the restaurant up just for me.

Who are these people?

Of course, I’m not the only one.  There’s always someone else eating by himself.  I say “himself,” because it’s almost always a man.  Even though I am doing the same, I can’t help but think:  What’s the deal with that guy?  Does everyone hate him?  Probably.  Poor, pathetic bastard.  Glad I’m not him.

My reaction is similar to the rare occasion when I encounter the Day People.  You know them.  They’re the folks out doing stuff like shopping and washing their cars during the day.  I always wonder why they’re not at work.  It’s none of my business, so I never ask.  When I get to the age where I can say anything,  I’ll ask:  “What are you doing out during the day?  Don’t you have a job, hippie?”  Something like that.  Again, I digress.

I’m sure these folks look at me the same way and ask the same questions.  I’m just a guy eating dinner alone.  I refuse to order room service or eating crappy fast food just because I’m alone.  Now, leave me alone.

Where do I go?

I’m sure you’re curious about where I’ve eaten this week, so I’ll tell you.

Waffle House:  See comments above.  It’s Waffle House.  It’s consistent.  And I always like it.

BD Pizzeria:  I just ate at this place because it was convenient.  Pizza buffet for $6.99.  Nothing special.

Bridge Street BBQ and Cafe:  I just saw this place while out scouting around.  Kinda of a dump, but it looked like my kind of place.  I was surprised when I went inside.  It was nice, clean and looked like someone’s home.  My waitress was about 70, and I’m sure she must be one of the owners.  She was extremely nice.  I had BBQ pork, green beans and mashed potatoes.  It was nothing special.  The pork was inexplicable chopped into chunks but was pretty good nonetheless.  The beans and potatoes were of the cafeteria variety.  That said, I really liked the lady who waited on me.  There were only a couple of other folks in there.  One guy was clearly drunk and just wanted to use the phone to call a cab.  Of course, they let him.  The other guy is pictured below:

Bridge Street BBQ and Cafe. Note pathetic patron dining alone.

Anglers:  This is a seafood restaurant overlooking the Gulf.  I had bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with crab; garlic mashed potatoes; and green beans. It was all outstanding but a little too pricey for what I got.

The view from Anglers

Mary’s Kitchen:    I picked this place because it had a smoker out back.  I ordered the BBQ chicken/pulled pork dinner with black eyed peas and cheese grits.  The pork and chicken were as good as it gets, and I’ve eaten a lot of BBQ.  The grits were the only thing lacking.  They tasted like they had melted Velveeta in them.  Nevertheless, I’d recommend this place to anyone.  Excellent.

Old Bay Steamer:  I got the one-person steamer:  Snow crab legs; mussels; clams; shrimp; oysters; corn on the cob; and new potatoes.  This was a home run.  Everything was great.  Ronnie the Waiter (who bore a disquieting resemblance to rapper Paul Wall) practically hovered over my table.  My water glass was topped off repeatedly.  Good service and great food.

The Steamer Pot at Old Bay Steamer

I’ve got a couple of nights left.  I’m thinking about steak for tonight.  I might go to Ruths Chris in Destin.  I’m pretty sure Waffle House doesn’t have a steak, but it might.  Wherever I go, it will just be me.  And that’s okay.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012