What Waffle House Taught Me about the South

In December 2008, my family traveled from Orlando to Dallas on a two-day holiday road trip to visit our Texas relatives. Circumstances necessitated that we stop at a Louisiana Waffle House, a stone’s throw from the east–west Interstate 12, for some predawn grub. Amid the familiar sounds of spitting grease and innocuous jukebox tunes, we enjoyed orders of eggs, waffles, and coffee, gearing up for the long drive ahead.

Like a scene from Bad Santa—hilarious yet unsettling—a slumped-over businessman bolted awake in a nearby restaurant booth, shouting “Check!” When a counterworker yelled “You already paid your bill, man,” the guy took a moment then responded, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure. You see, I’m in the business.” Before unsteadily exiting into the dark morning chill, he approached our table and told my wife, “You have smiley eyes.”

By now, few dispute Waffle House’s popular status as a roadside icon of messy Southern modernity. With some 2,100 locations spread across more than two-dozen states, the budget all-night eatery has come a long way since Metro-Atlanta neighbors Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner launched operations in 1955. Today, even Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, boasts its very own scaled-down Waffle House, proof of its prevailing cultural cachet regionwide.

Although the chain itself does little or nothing to promote its Southern bona fides—indeed, its slogan “America’s Best Place to Eat” seems rather geographically diffuse—such regional associations persist, enjoying considerable currency among Americans of all stripes. Widely embraced as a warts-and-all microcosm of today’s Bible Belt, Waffle House engages the public imagination mostly in one of two ways.

The first largely subordinates Waffle House’s conventional menu of hearty, greasy spoon favorites to a range of aberrant onsite occurrences: everything from intoxicated graveyard-shift buffoonery to outright felonious behavior including murder and aggravated robbery. If the sensationalized media reports and snarky Internet tropes that such incidents elicit hold merit, then this lurid version of Waffle House certainly warrants its uncharitable billing as the Florida Man of restaurants.

The second and more recent approach to Waffle House serves as a counternarrative of sorts. It effectively humanizes the chain, approaching its clientele and employees as irrepressible underdogs, misunderstood by the elitist tastemakers and self-appointed gourmands who continuously fail to appreciate the simple yet dependable offerings that a roadside eatery, which ostensibly never locks its doors, provides for all. Figures like Anthony Bourdain and John Mayer have said as much throughout the years.

Each of these perspectives skews toward the reductive, obscuring the mundane restaurant realities that typically characterize everyday operations. With a limited marketing bandwidth—the chain famously avoids all television advertising—Waffle House cedes much of its messaging authority to others. This allows just about anyone to project their own prejudices and praises onto the blank canvas that the restaurant essentially provides.

Like its region of origin, Waffle House carries considerable cultural baggage. It’s a place easily caricatured but difficult to fully grasp. Besides the American West, no other US region is more thoroughly steeped in an enduring mythos than today’s South. From toxic Lost Cause nostalgia to spirited Sunbelt can-do-ism, this bloc of Southeastern and Gulf Coast states teems with a palpable sense of place, one informed by the aspirational yearnings and (mis)remembered histories that animate so many of the real and imaginary landscapes experienced by the millions of Americans who call this contiguous stretch of territory beneath the Mason–Dixon Line home.

With no shortage of voices to champion or challenge what the South truly means, the region resonates for reasons both admirable and unsettling, evoking a dichotomous character that defies simple characterization. For a region that prides itself for its staunch Christian values, folksy friendliness, and down-home charm, an ugly history of exclusion, enslavement, and extrajudicial violence continues to linger, despite efforts to downplay its impact or legislate it out of public discourse.

Reconciling the light and dark, good and bad, appealing and unflattering dualities that undergird the Southern identity proves no easy feat. Yet, Waffle House offers a viable entry point for anyone up the challenge. It’s open right now, and there’s a good chance of encountering something truly memorable on your next visit.

Ty Matejowsky is a professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida. His new book is Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary.

What’s #NextUP in Publishing?

This week marks University Press Week, an annual celebration sponsored by the Association of University Presses. Next UP is this year’s theme. Organizers chose it to reflect the “constant spirit of learning, adaptation, and evolution” embodied by university presses. Today UAP joins the festivities with a post for the Next UP Blog Tour.

For what’s #NextUP in publishing, let’s take a look at UAP’s internship program.

The press has long welcomed as interns undergraduate and graduate students from our host institution, the University of Alabama. These students came to the press at the recommendation of their professors, volunteering hours of their time for one or more semesters (hours, we should note, on top of those already committed to their coursework, extracurricular activities, and jobs). Thanks to their interest, enthusiasm, and exceptional performance, new campus partnerships were formed and existing ones strengthened, allowing the press internship to evolve from a volunteer activity to a for-credit course option.

Through the English Department, undergraduate students can choose to make a year-long publishing internship part of their course of study. Students who complete the internship in the fall and spring semesters earn three credits toward an English major or minor and three elective credits. These interns are jointly managed by the press and Alabama Heritage magazine. (Previously, students could earn only three elective credits for interning at either UAP or AH.)

Students dedicate ten hours a week to the internship, where they learn about book and magazine publishing beginning with the life cycles of books and magazine issues. The magazine engages interns in fact-checking, photo research, and checking galleys and proofs. They are also asked to write posts for the Alabama Heritage blog, and, if they choose to do so, they write an Alabama Makers article.

At the press, students engage in a variety of activities through which they gain an understanding of operations across departments and at different stages of the publication process. Interns assist with conference research, manuscript preparation, data entry, and digitizing records. They check stages of proof, mark corrections, handle errata, fact-check and proofread catalog and cover copy, and more. Through these activities students advance their knowledge of Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat and become familiar with The Chicago Manual of Style.

Outside of internship hours, students complete a series of directed readings and reflections designed to complement their interest in publishing and further their knowledge of the industry. Students have used these readings to explore acquisitions, developmental editing, rights and permissions, copyediting, and writing. Among the most popular reading selections are titles from the Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing series, including What Editors Do? The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, edited by Peter Ginna; The Business of Being a Writer, by Jane Friedman; and The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd edition, by Carol Fisher Saller. At the end of each semester, students compose a reflection on their internship experience and assemble a portfolio of their reading responses and samples of their work.

The internship also provides students with opportunities to supplement their readings and hands-on experience. Over the course of the fall and spring semesters, students receive weekly emails featuring publishing industry–related information and professional development resources. They are invited to events such as the AUPresses Book, Jacket, and Journal Show, which UAP last hosted in September–October of this year. For those who want to learn more about jobs in publishing, they can meet one-on-one with press and magazine staff.

The year-long for-credit publishing internship complements other publishing-related course-based and extracurricular opportunities provided by the English Department. These include the online literary journal Call Me [Brackets], the new Red Rook Press, and the online literary magazine of the English Honors Society Dewpoint.

The press also has had a long relationship with the Book Arts Program. The Design and Production Department hosts MFA student interns and welcomes visiting classes. This relationship has now expanded to include undergraduate graphic design students, who can intern for a semester and earn three course credits. Through the internship, students learn about book design, cover design, typography, and book production. They typically work on front cover designs, text design, converting jackets to covers, and reprint corrections.

Students who participate in these internship programs add to their resumes and portfolios, graduating from the University of Alabama with the knowledge and experience necessary to enter the publishing industry. These impressive students are what’s #NextUP in publishing.

National Women’s History Month 2022 40% Off Sale

For National Women’s History Month, University of Alabama Press presents these titles centering the lives and perspectives of women at 40% off through the end of March.

Browse these histories, memoirs, and biographies by and about women—female service members commemorating the Great War, groundbreaking civil-rights lawyer and federal judge Constance Baker Motley, young witnesses to the 1965 struggle in Selma, and more.

Use code NWHM22 at checkout when you order through our website and get 40% off.

Constance Baker Motley: One Woman’s Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice under Law by Gary L. Ford Jr.

Constance Baker Motley was an African American woman; the daughter of immigrants from Nevis, British West Indies; a wife; and a mother who became a pioneer and trailblazer in the legal profession. She broke down barriers, overcame gender constraints, and operated outside the boundaries placed on black women by society and the civil rights movement. In Constance Baker Motley: One Woman’s Fight for Civil Rights and Equal Justice under Law, Gary L. Ford Jr. explores the key role Motley played in the legal fight to desegregate public schools as well as colleges, universities, housing, transportation, lunch counters, museums, libraries, parks, and other public accommodations.

Desert Rose: The Life and Legacy of Coretta Scott King by Edythe Scott Bagley with Joe Hilley

Coretta Scott King—noted author, human rights activist, and wife and partner of famed Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr.—grew up in the rural Alabama Black Belt with her older sister, Edythe Scott Bagley. Bagley chronicles the sisters’ early education together at the Crossroads School and later at the progressive Lincoln School in Marion. She describes Coretta’s burgeoning talent for singing and her devotion to musical studies, and the sisters’ experiences matriculating at Antioch College, an all-white college far from the rural South. Bagley provides vivid insights into Coretta’s early passion for racial and economic justice, which lead to her involvement in the Peace Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Coretta’s devotion to activism, motherhood, and the movement led by her husband, and her courageous assumption of the legacy left in the wake of King’s untimely assassination, are wonderfully detailed in this intimate biography.

Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917–1945 by Allison S. Finkelstein

In Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917–1945 Allison S. Finkelstein argues that American women activists considered their own community service and veteran advocacy to be forms of commemoration just as significant and effective as other, more traditional forms of commemoration such as memorials. Finkelstein employs the term “veteranism” to describe these women’s overarching philosophy that supporting, aiding, and caring for those who served needed to be a chief concern of American citizens, civic groups, and the government in the war’s aftermath. However, these women did not express their views solely through their support for veterans of a military service narrowly defined as a group predominantly composed of men and just a few women. Rather, they defined anyone who served or sacrificed during the war, including women like themselves, as veterans.

Maria Martin’s World: Art and Science, Faith and Family in Audubon’s America by Debra J. Lindsay

Maria Martin (1796–1863) was an evangelical Lutheran from Charleston, South Carolina, who became an accomplished painter within months of meeting John James Audubon. Martin met Audubon through her brother-in-law, Reverend John Bachman, who befriended Audubon while passing through Charleston on route to Florida where he expected to find new avian species. Martin was an amateur artist, but by the time Audubon left, she had familiarized herself with his style of drawing. Six months after their initial meeting, her background botanicals were deemed good enough to embellish Audubon’s exquisite bird paintings. Maria Martin’s World is a heavily illustrated volume examining how Maria Martin learned to paint aesthetically beautiful botanicals with exacting accuracy. Drawing on deep research into archival documents and family-held artifacts, Debra Lindsay brings Maria Martin out from behind the curtain of obscurity and disinformation that has previously shrouded her and places her centrally in her own time and milieu.

Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893-1993 by Faith Rogow

The first comprehensive history of the oldest national religious Jewish women’s organization in the United States, Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893-1993 explores the council’s approach to immigrant aid, relationships between German and Eastern European Jews, and the power struggle between the Reform movement and more traditional interpretations of Judaism.

Good Maya Women: Migration and Revitalization of Clothing and Language in Highland Guatemala
by Joyce N. Bennett

Good Maya Women: Migration and Revitalization of Clothing and Language in Highland Guatemala analyzes how Indigenous women’s migration contributes to women’s empowerment in their home communities in Guatemala. This decolonial ethnographic analysis of Kaqchikel Maya women’s linguistic and cultural activism demonstrates that marginalized people can and do experience empowerment and hope for the future of their communities, even while living under oppressive neoliberal regimes. Joyce N. Bennett contests dominant frameworks of affect theory holding that marginalized peoples never truly experience unrestricted hope or empowerment, and she contributes new understandings of the intimate connections between Indigenous women, migration, and language and clothing revitalization.

Borders of Visibility: Haitian Migrant Women and the Dominican Nation-State by Jennifer L. Shoaff

Borders of Visibility offers extremely timely insight into the Dominican Republic’s racist treatment of Haitian descendants within its borders. Jennifer L. Shoaff employs multisited feminist research to focus on the geographies of power that intersect to inform the opportunities and constraints that migrant women must navigate to labor and live within a context that largely denies their human rights, access to citizenship, and a sense of security and belonging.

Home without Walls: Southern Baptist Women and Social Reform in the Progressive Era by Carol Crawford Holcomb

The Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), founded in 1888, carved out a uniquely feminine space within the Southern Baptist Convention during the tumultuous years of the Progressive Era when American theologians were formulating the social gospel. These women represented the Southern Baptist elite and as such had the time to read, write, and discuss ideas with other Southern progressives. They rubbed shoulders with more progressive Methodist and Presbyterian women in clubs and ecumenical missionary meetings. Baptist women studied the missionary publications of these other denominations and adopted ideas for a Southern Baptist audience. In Home without Walls: Southern Baptist Women and Social Reform in the Progressive Era, Carol Crawford Holcomb uncovers ample evidence that WMU leaders, aware of the social gospel and sympathetic to social reform, appropriated the tools of social work and social service to carry out their missionary work.

Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days by Sheyann Webb, Rachel West Nelson, and Frank Sikora

Sheyann Webb was eight years old and Rachel West was nine when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma, Alabama, on January 2, 1965. He came to organize non-violent demonstrations against discriminatory voting laws. Selma, Lord, Selma is their firsthand account of the events from that turbulent winter of 1965–events that changed not only the lives of these two little girls but the lives of all Alabamians and all Americans. From 1975 to 1979, award-winning journalist Frank Sikora conducted interviews with Webb and West, weaving their recollections into this luminous story of fear and courage, struggle and redemption that readers will discover is Selma, Lord, Selma.

Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering by Judith Hillman Paterson

Judith Paterson was just nine years old in 1946 when her mother died of a virulent combination of alcoholism and mental illness at the age of 31. Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering is Paterson’s harrowing account of the memories of her mother, told with eloquence and understanding. Set largely in Montgomery, Alabama, the story plays out against a backdrop of relatives troubled almost as much by southern conflicts over race and class as by the fallout from a long family history of drinking, denial, and mental illness.

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White by Lila Quintero Weaver

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White is an arresting and moving personal story about childhood, race, and identity in the American South, rendered in stunning illustrations by the author, Lila Quintero Weaver. In 1961, when Lila was five, she and her family emigrated from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Marion, Alabama, in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt. As educated, middle-class Latino immigrants in a region that was defined by segregation, the Quinteros occupied a privileged vantage from which to view the racially charged culture they inhabited. Weaver and her family were firsthand witnesses to key moments in the civil rights movement. But Darkroom is her personal story as well: chronicling what it was like being a Latina girl in the Jim Crow South, struggling to understand both a foreign country and the horrors of our nation’s race relations.

All the Lost Girls: Confessions of a Southern Daughter by Patricia Foster

Patricia Foster’s lyrical yet often painful memoir explores the life of a white middle-class girl who grew up in rural south Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, a time and place that did not tolerate deviation from traditional gender roles. Her mother raised Foster and her sister as “honorary boys,” girls with the ambition of men but the temperament of women. An unhappy, intelligent woman who kept a heartbreaking secret from everyone close to her, Foster’s mother was driven by a repressed rage that fed her obsession for middle-class respectability. By the time Foster reached age fifteen, her efforts to reconcile the contradictory expectations that she be at once ambitious and restrained had left her nervous and needy inside even while she tried to cultivate the appearance of the model student, sister, and daughter. It was only a psychological and physical breakdown that helped her to realize that she couldn’t save her driven, complicated mother and must struggle instead for both understanding and autonomy.