Monday, February 22, 2010

Waffle House

When traveling in the South one absolutely must visit local diners around breakfast time. Here I am in Canton, North Carolina. As a child I used to go to camp near here. I completely forgot about the smell, that awful smell, that fills the whole area from time to time because of the paper mill. En route to Charlotte to catch a plane back home to Tartu tomorrow, I couldn’t resist a short detour to Canton early this morning. And the awful smell made me want to eat at none other than—the Awful Waffle.

Waffle House is an American diner chain, especially popular among highway drivers. If you’re in a hurry, just go here because you already know what the food will be like. That’s why Americans eat at McDonald’s in Paris. You can only eat frog so many times on one trip, and you have four museums and two monuments to cover before dinner. “Tom’s a tickin,” as the locals say. In English, this means, “Time is ticking,” or you don’t have much time. And it does take time for virgin tourists to the South to get used to the accent, especially as it’s a different accent every couple hours on the Interstate.

Any breakfast diner is going to serve greasy food akin to what your doctor specifically tells you not to eat. But if you haven’t had a proper breakfast in years—at least, what I consider a proper breakfast, based on what I had in my childhood—it is simply amazing. I ordered the All-Star Special—a couple fried eggs, breakfast sausage, a waffle, biscuits and gravy and an extra of hashbrowns. Scattered, smothered and chunked, of course.

The breakfast sausage is an American specialty. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else. The closest thing in Estonia is the raw sausage in lamb intestines. And it’s not that close. And the waffle is not the gigantic Belgian waffle (I heard there’s a place in Tartu that sells them now) but just a small, thin, griddled pancake. Not a crêpe, but a pancake. “Cake” implies that there is something magical in the batter that rises. Crêpes don’t rise, so the Estonian pannkook is an incorrect term.

Watching Americans eat pancakes and waffles is a bit sickening, if you pay attention to what they’re doing and think of the consequences. They are first fried in butter or oil (the pancakes and waffles, I mean), then smothered with more butter, then maple syrup is poured over them in large quantities. It reminds me of Billy Connolly’s rant about Americans eating food out of a bucket, in reference to a bucket of fried chicken or a bucket of popcorn at the movies. Barnyard animals eat out of buckets, he says. But damn, this waffle tasted good.

Biscuits and gravy is a Southern specialty. I make biscuits in Tartu as well—it’s very easy. The secret is buttermilk. Pett in Estonia is an excellent substitute, maybe even better than Southern-style buttermilk itself. I won’t describe what they’re like, but I’ll give you my recipe at the end of this review and you can try them for yourself. Meat-based gravy is optional. I prefer honey or jam.

Hashbrowns are an amazing dish. I don’t think it’s possible to make them in Estonia, unless you have a potato ricer—basically a large garlic press. You slice up the potatoes (or shred them) and they’re pressed in the ricer, to get all the extra starch and liquids out. When you cook the potatoes, they are nice and fluffy, not oily and soggy.

There is one item, only available in the South, called grits. Basically a coarsely ground corn meal porridge. You can make them in Estonia, but I can’t remember what grain to use, because I have never had a grit in my life. Grits are insanely popular in the South, but I just can’t bring myself to try something that is rumored to be an effective ant-killer. The rumor is that you can put dry grits around an anthill, they will eat them and as the meal expands, they burst. This in turn reminds me of the emergency room horror stories about little children who eat dry cat food.

I ordered a coffee for just over a buck. Eleven kroons is a dollar right now. Every time my coffee was only half full, the waitress—Christina—refilled my mug. “You want some mo’, suga’?” she asked in a raspy voice that suggested she had inhaled too much of North Carolina’s cash crop. “Yes, ma’am,” I politely replied. Ma’am. Southern for “madame”. I’ve always heard that you know you’re from the South if you need extra syllables for words like “dad” or “yes”. Day-ad, yay-es. Reminds me of the Saaremaalese õ.

I decided to try out my newfound accent. “Excuse me, may I ask a question?”
—Of cose!” she said with a broad smile, crow’s feet covered up with layers of makeup. Was her last name Baker by chance?
“Out of curiosity, would it be possible for me to sit here all day?”
—Umm, sho’, but you’d have ta ordo sumpthin.
“Don’t worry, Ah won’t sit here all day, Ah’m jist wonderin’,” I reassured here. She smiled even more, her teeth impossibly, unnaturally white, especially considering her supposed habit. “Ah’m doin’ sum research for mah writin’,” I added.
—Oh yeah? Whatcha’ writin’ ‘bout?
“Jist food, for back hoh-ome.”
—Where you from, honey?
“Where do you think Ah’m from?” I wanted to get some feedback on my accent.
—Charleston. Sumwheh neah the bea-each, she posited with confidence.
“Close. Ah live in Estonia.”
—Really? Is that neah Denmark? Mah ex-husband’s from there.
“Pritty close, yes ma’am,” I answered with a grin. Thing is, I already knew there was a village in South Carolina called Denmark, right next to another called Gastonia. And I thought Estonia was small.

I continued my conversation with Christina, and found that my cup of coffee was theoretically bottomless, but only half the coffee served in their diner was actually coffee. The rest was decaffeinated coffee, or decaf. A lot of Europeans, more often than not Estonians, can’t understand why the hell anyone would drink decaf. What’s the point, right? Well, some people actually like the flavor of coffee, but want to go to sleep at some point in the next week. Or maybe they can’t have too much caffeine, like me. I would drink coffee in Tartu’s cafés much more often if I could get decaf lattes, decaf espressos (hint, hint Tartu!).

My verbose and polite waitress started laughing when I asked her how much tap water cost. “Nuthin’ of cose! Who charges for watah?!” Estonia, I replied. So water, ketchup, coffee creamers, bread as various types of appetizer—all free. Everywhere. Free refills on coffee, Coke and so on.

“Could Ah have some more jam for my biscuits, please?” That was free, too. How could they give away everything for free, and the meal itself cost just seven bucks? I was stuffed! It’s because of buying in bulk. The more restaurants a chain has, the lower the unit cost. Simple economics. Apart from McDonald’s and Hessburger in Tartu, I can’t think of any restaurant chains. Maybe a pizza place. “Why is Estonia so expensive?” I frequently wonder. The inevitable reply is that it’s a small market. “But the European Union is the largest single market in the world,” I persist. I thought joining the EU was supposed to take care of the high prices in Estonia, that Estonia would no longer be a small market, but part of the largest in the world. I’ve never got an answer to that one. We still don’t have Ikea. Why?

I went to the cash register to pay my bill, and smelled the smoking section. For a seven-dollar meal and conversation, I left a three-dollar tip. Almost fifty percent! And it still wasn’t really that much. I walked back to my rental car, a Ford Taurus. My reservation was for an economy-size car, but when I landed, I didn’t like the car very much because I couldn’t sit in it without bumping my head on the roof, and I’m not that tall really. They bumped me up to full-size, no charge. I made the mistake of messing around with the Bluetooth feature on the radio with my cell phone. The result was that I couldn’t listen to anything but the radio. I can’t wait to get back to Estonia and hear boom-boom techno and eighties music. Anything but religious rock and round-the-clock prayer.

The world’s stereotype for Americans is that everyone is fat. On this trip, I did see a lot of overweight people, but nothing surprising for what I usually see in Estonia. What I did not see, however, were those truly obese people who are the frequent butts of jokes. Most of the people, to be perfectly honest, seemed fairly healthy, in good shape even. “Geez no, I never eat in Waffle House or Burger King,” is a common response. “I love Applebee’s.” Never been there myself.

Never had a grit, never eaten at Applebee’s, never liked religious rock. As I get older, I just want to stick to the things I know. Who cares about broadening your horizons, right? Everything’s fine the way it is, right? While there is not a single breakfast place in Tartu, you can get an inverted hamburger bun with cheese at McDonald’s, called McToast. Pass me some more bacon.


Buttermilk biscuits

two cups flour
one tablespoon baking powder
one tablespoon sugar
three-fourths teaspoon salt
one-half teaspoon baking soda
five tablespoons cold vegetable oil
one cup buttermilk (pett)

First, mix the dry ingredients well. Add the oil with a mixer to form coarse chunks of oil and flour. Add the buttermilk and stir with a fork just until there are no bits of dry ingredients, but be careful not to overmix. The chunks of oil are supposed to stay there. Place golfball-sized bits of batter about five centimeters apart on a baking sheet, and bake at two hundred twenty Celsius for about twelve to fifteen minutes. Great for sandwiches, too!


John said...

Ever consider creating your own TV or radio show? Maybe you could wear a mask and/or alter your voice to maintain your secret crime-fighting identity? Anyway thanks for the biscuit recipe!

BTW tried making vegan couscous substituting Tofu for meat. Not bad but nowhere near as good as yours. My Tofu fajitas were far more successful!

Kristopher said...

I wonder why the alien scientists who invented the toxic transfat called Crisco never thought of just chilling vegetable oil until solid. Christ, that's obvious yet brilliant.

I do prefer kefir over pett, it's richer-tasting (while still only 2.5% fat). Anyway, pett has a funny name.

The first part of this post reminded me of the Talking Heads: "What's that smell, is that home cooking? It's only the river. It's only the river."

Oss said...

BTW "pett" is pretty old word and comes from Fenno-Volgaic language period 2000 BC.

Words like lehm (cow), siga (pig), kevad (spring), jumal (god) come from the same period and still have same ancient stem in Mari and Udmurt and other languages.

Ragne said...

As a matter of fact there actually are few places in Tartu that attempt to cater for the breakfast rush. Last one i visited was Big Ben Pub which had sort of an eclectic breakfast table from 7am already, if i'm not mistaken.