Same, same but different - a Brit's look into America's 24 hour dining culture
Oscar Wilde wrote: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."
...and it seems 24 hour culture
While on my annual vacation to visit friends all over the US, but mainly Indianapolis it started like this, a long day of eating drinking, and a live music show in Louisville Kentucky left me happy, but exhausted asleep in the back of my friends car on the drive back to Indianapolis. Whilst I was blissfully snoring, my friends decided some late night eats were needed and pulled over at a Waffle House.
I woke up and seeing the fast food place I figured it would be a quick stop, in my head I had that image we all do of American fast food places, bright lights, shiny signs, a counter and nasty bad for you (but strangely delicious) food served up in huge portions reminiscent of an Adam Richman Man vs Food show, served up on a tray, with giant buckets of fizzy pop. This image is as familiar to us in the UK now, as it is with our US cousins, think McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC. As a self confessed Yank-o-phile I have am odd affection for such places, but only visit while on this side of the pond, its my holiday guilty treat, as disgusted by I am at times by the sheer volume of deep fried fare, part of me actually wants to be Adam, taking on those challenges and being cheered on, or riding along on some of Guy Fieri's Diners, drive in's and dive's road trips
We opened the door, and it hit me, this isn't KFC! First up, despite the late hour it was busy! Full of families and people who weren't just loaded weirdo's or teenagers, (discounting the two seriously loaded older biker guys we saw outside) I checked my watch, yes it was almost 1am, I was not hallucinating. Secondly, it wasn't all bright shiny lino and primary coloured furniture, oh no. This was the recreation room of a nursing home circa 1985. Beige, banquettes, paper place mats, softly playing country music, plastic pot plants covered in dust, and carpet, oh carpet everywhere. I checked my watch again, yep still almost 1am and most definitely 2011.
Where was I? I'd just woke up, what trick were my friends playing on my sleep addled brain? I looked at them and seeing my befuddlement they started to laugh.
We sit down, and oh my god, is it my eyes or is that Julie Walters coming towards me, dressed (though this time in a polo) as the old lady waitress in the famous 'two soups' Victoria Wood sketch or is this place staffed entirely by pensioners?
My eyes again have not failed me, this is where old waitresses come to serve coffee till they go to push their eternal dessert trolleys in the sky. (apparently the rule is in Waffle Houses they have to be called Ethel or Flo, I never did find out the name of our 'Flo' her handwriting on the check was too old lady spidery to work out) She poured us coffee, it seemed to much for her and I had to resist the urge to help her wee wrists hold the big heavy jug, she tottered away to the register, leaving our check behind for her next trip by to the kitchen, multi tasking seemed beyond the poor old girl.
Then came the menu, it was the kind of thing that reminded me of the pre Heston Little chef menu's of my childhood, big, shiny, fold out and covered in pictures of eggs you wouldn't want to eat, but could play Frisbee with. But hang on a minute, what's this? A house that proclaims itself to be of the Waffle and having only 1 waffle item on the menu, too much for my wee brain! Rejecting the tasty misspelled menu options scrawled on the white board by the door I selected 2 eggs poached with ham and toast. It seemed the most simple for me to cope with right then, navigating anything that may have come with that weird creamy substance America seems to call 'gravy' but is strangely reminiscent of undiluted Campbell's soup would just have been a challenge too far.
All our order arrived, well I say arrived, slammed on to the table by a surly teenage girl would be a more accurate description. She appeared to be the only member of staff under 70, well I think she was either the granddaughter of 'Flo' or a strange reenactment of Cocoon was happening back in the kitchen, as 'Flo' was absent whenever the teenager appeared.
I marveled at the whole thing, why on earth are these places open 24 hours? Why are families (yes small children) here at 1am? They looked fairly respectable, what is it I'm missing? Why do people want raisin toast with eggs, bacon and jam. What exactly makes a Texas biscuit Texan? Why in establishments that have wipe clean menu's can't somebody actually wipe them?
The only thing I could liken it to in the UK is a motorway service station café, but that description doesn't even touch the sides, and these places exist all over apparently, my friends regaled me with tales of youthful nights spent in various Waffle houses, Denny's and Big Wheels (wtf?) all over Indiana, not just near interstate roads, who on earth goes to these in residential neighbourhoods? They were shocked at my befuddlement and wonder why we don't have these 24 hour breakfast experiences in the UK. I suggested perhaps people don't have cravings for sausage gravy and beige carpets at 4 am in my world, but still they marveled as much at our respectable eating establishment opening hours as I did at their sheer lunacy.
So it seems our image is wrong, it may be 2011 and we may think of America as all shiny and new, but nope, small town America is still there, you just need to go look for it, off that road somewhere is a beige banquette and formica topped lunch counter by the kitchen waiting for you. Maybe it's us that's wrong, maybe we should get on board and open a few more of our greasy spoons 24 hours a day, if not for the food, or even us the customers, but just to provide a future generation of service staff a place to work when in the future they can no longer afford the luxury of retirement. We'll all be working till we can no longer flip an egg soon anyway, sure there are worse places for 'Flo' to end her days, at least she gets tips in this waiting room.