From The Wall Street Journal:
You can tell a lot about a person by how they order at Waffle House, but I would suggest that the thing that separates the sheep from the goats isn’t what they regularly order, but rather that they have an order at all.
I don’t think it matters, in other words, if you like your hash browns the way I do—scattered (on the grill), peppered (with jalapenos), smothered (with onions) and covered (with melted cheese). But you should like them some particular way, and you should know how you like them. In the midst of his criss-crossing of culinary America in “Buttermilk Graffiti,” chef Edward Lee stops into a Waffle House and orders “a bowl of chili and hash browns, smothered and covered.” He’s in Prattville, Ala., where “Valerie works the griddle station and belts out rock-and-roll classics all the while, changing the lyrics to make waffle and egg references.”
In these passages Mr. Lee, who runs acclaimed restaurants in Louisville, Ky., National Harbor, Md., and Washington, D.C., is reflecting on the intimacy and social comfort he’s found in this Southern chain restaurant. He contrasts it to a rather awkward series of adventures in Korean restaurants in Montgomery, Ala., of which there are surprisingly many. Oddly, he found, not many of the Koreans running these restaurants wanted to talk to him about the food they were cooking, and though the food was familiar—Mr. Lee’s parents immigrated from Korea—he didn’t feel quite at home. These sorts of questions are the crux of “Buttermilk Graffiti”: Where are we comfortable? How can assimilation and tradition coexist? Why is there such excellent Cambodian food in Lowell, Mass.? How can it be that there are more Korean restaurants per capita in Montgomery than in Manhattan?
. . . .
By that time Jane and Michael Stern’s “Roadfood” had been out a few years; Calvin Trillin had published “American Fried” a few years before that. Those books laid out the pattern for future American food travelogues. What Mr. Trillin did was to insist that good-old down-home stuff was where the fun was. He was thumbing his nose at the fancy-schmancy, insisting that we all avoid “Le Maison de la Casa House” and any place of which the chamber of commerce is proud. In a culinary world that was, by all reports, drenched in thick continental sauces, this was a good message and needed to be spread. But what I experienced in Carlisle, Pa.—and what Edward Lee tracks intrepidly throughout the country—is something different. It’s fresh, comfortable excellence—sometimes a frisson that the newly arrived bring to the table, sometimes a tradition that is just one step outside of the mainstream. In Miami, it is the flavors of Cuban exiles, and in Dearborn, Mich., it is the mint tea with which Mr. Lee breaks his fast at sundown during Ramadan.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal