Book Explores Southern Identity Through the Lens of Waffle House

Say “Waffle House” and you’ll probably picture late-night brawls shared on social media or stand-up comedy material. But the same qualities that make us laugh also make the restaurant the perfect subject of study by cultural anthropologists like Professor Ty Matejowsky, Ph.D.  

Matejowsky specializes in how food shapes and informs a culture, with past projects including a study into fast food in the Philippines. The Southern breakfast chain became the focus of his latest research when he discovered federal emergency management informally measures weather severity based on whether Waffle House is open.  

“Delving into that, I came to the realization that no one had done a cultural meditation on Waffle House,” Matejowsky said.  

The result after a year of research and writing was “Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary” (published December 2022 by University Alabama Press). The book brings an academic approach to defining Waffle House as a microcosm of the South without losing sight of the absurdity that defines it as a cultural touchstone.  

For instance, only a month after the book was published, Waffle House entered the zeitgeist with a viral video of an employee deftly catching a chair in the middle of a fight.  

Matejowsky starts with the concept of Waffle House representing the South, just like McDonald’s is a stand-in for America on the global stage. It’s not an identity Waffle House officially advertises, but a generally accepted organic concept.  

Waffle House is a shorthand way of describing the South, “especially a no-frills, down-home version of the South,” Matejowsky said. “That resonates with people.”  

He then unpacks the duality of what that represents, both the warm Southern hospitality and a dark history of racism. He also explores the idea that Waffle House belongs to everyone, from renowned chefs like Anthony Bourdain to musicians like John Mayer, Jonas Brothers and Lana Del Rey all embracing the eatery. When riots broke out in Atlanta in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a Waffle House was deliberately spared.  

Ultimately Waffle House transcends its founding identity and becomes something else entirely.  

“People take their own ideas of what it means,” he said.  

Learn more about the book here: 

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