A Lesson in Doneness at Waffle House

My obsession with hash browns, like my obsessions with hamburgers, U.S. Presidents, grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, Barbara Eden, and the works of Philip K. Dick, has taken me to some strange places. None of these are stranger, or at least more alien to my basic makeup, than the Waffle House. That Waffle House is without a doubt the great American restaurant I’ve argued, vehemently and unconvincingly, many times; but it’s the kind of claim only an invisible outsider could make.

I bring all this up in the context of how to cook hash browns.

Danit and I were returning from a family vacation in our white Japanese rental car when I spotted what I knew to be one of the very northernmost Waffle Houses, and I veered into it with an almost manic glee. Here at last I would see those hash browns that I define the dish for me: shredded into identical white lozenges, each one ripe for browning and the absorption of precious tropical oils. Much to my dismay, though, the usual efficiency and command were no more to be found. As so often happens as Waffle Houses extend toward the Mason-Dixon line and out of the reach of their Georgia headquarters, management was shaky at best. “Where’s my cook?” a testy waitress kept saying, angrily thrusting her liver-spotted hands into rubber gloves and and angrily taking up cooking duties. Two other waitresses lounged impertinently around; they were going off shift, but wanted to have some light sport with their friend, a forty-ish blonde with loads of attitude. “He probably just had a problem with his ride, Marsha,” one said. “How many sausages are supposed to be down?” she barked out, unappeased. This drama all played out while my hash browns cooked, and cooked, and cooked. “Maybe it will make them better,” I said to Danit. “I used to deliberately order them well done.” Danit looked back at me, mocking my earnest agitation with a round-mouthed open-eyed gape. “Maybe they will!”

The manager, an apologetic looking milquetoast, wandered out briefly, but acted with all the authority of a Jewish husband who has wandered into an angry quarrel between his wife and sisters, and soon slinked out again. Marsha continued to act out, slamming her sausage weights and cursing at being stuck there. Meanwhile, the hash browns continued to cook. Eventually Marsha remembered about their existence and dropped them in three piles onto a plate – so as to make sure that most of the order would become steamed and soggy, and lose the emphatic crunch she accidentaly gave them.

It didn’t matter. The hash browns, while they looked great, even askew, were dried out inside – a fact no amount of crispy outside could cover. I pondered what to do. I had waited so long for my favorite thing at my favorite restaurant, and endured the kind of cringing that only watching somebody else’s meltdown bring. At that point, Leo, the missing cook, walked in. I had expected him to be a middle-aged biker type with jailhouse tattoos and a thousand-yard stare. But it was a shaggy-haired teen who looked something like Bobby Sherman, or one of the Jonas brothers. To me, this was bad news. Those convicts generally know how to cook, and I was still weighing the option of asking for a new order. Leo walked behind the counter, and all wrath immediately melted away. It was obvious that the entire all-female staff was either crushing on him, or had a maternal affection that amounted to the same thing. More surprising still, Leo, despite his juvenile appearance and late arrival, turned out to be a masterful grill operator. Within seconds he was laying down bacon, dropping sausages, readying his egg cartons, staggering toast orders, and – at my behest, putting a second order of hash browns on the grill. This one, when he put it in front of me, was every bit as brown on the outside as the wreckage I had been given before; but the inside potato shreds were soft and tender and moist, and gave the dish a flavor on the whole that even crust, grease, and salt – which I had hitherto thought its basic elements – hadn’t delivered. What had happened? What could lesson could I learn from this mishap? How could I use it to my advantage in my own hash browns. I am still thinking about it, and I have Leo to thank.

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