This is excerpted from our newest cookbook, All About Eggs, an encyclopedic ovarian overview and the only tome you need to own about the indispensable egg.
In North-Central Florida, nearly every highway exit ramp terminates at a Waffle House. When I moved there, several years ago, the horrific realities of factory farming were not unknown to me—electric cattle prods, growth hormones, monstrous genetic modifications, high-dose antibiotics, and torturous slaughtering practices—so I avoided eating Waffle House’s bacon, sausage, and ham. But I always ordered eggs alongside my hashbrowns and waffles. I cultivated a willful denial that separated the chicken from the egg—the former a living creature, the latter a life null and void. Protein. Salt and pepper. Hot sauce. The “Fun Facts” page on Waffle House’s website states that, since the restaurant’s founding in 1955, they have dished out over 2.5 billion eggs. What were a couple more?
My first Waffle House meal took place somewhere in South Carolina at around two a.m. while I was on a road-trip during college. The server took my order and then cooked my meal in an open kitchen with a lit cigarette dangling from her lips. My over-medium fried eggs were bland and rubbery, serving strictly as vehicles for the salt, pepper, and hot sauce with which I doused them. But my pecan waffle was delicious, I dug the old-school fast food décor, and the server-cum-chef called me “angel-face” and “sweat pea.” I left vibrating with sugar and caffeine, a Waffle House devotee from that day forth.
I am not alone in my enthusiasm. Waffle House’s over 2,100 locations sell enough bacon each year to wrap around the Earth’s equator. All franchises are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the event of a natural disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gauges damage using something called “The Waffle House Index;” if franchises in a particular area are closed, officials can assume that the event’s impact has been catastrophic. The chain’s broad appeal has even been used as a model for boosting membership at evangelical Christian churches. In his book The Gospel According to Waffle House, pastor and syndicated columnist Ronnie McBrayer writes: “We don’t need more straight-laced, behavior-management obsessed, bottom-line focused, boundary-drawing corporations calling themselves the Body of Christ. We need these things we call churches to look more like Waffle House restaurants.”
During my time in Florida, Waffle House’s eggs started to disturb me; their blandness began to register less like neutrality to my palate, and more like menace. There was something creepy about the flavorlessness and pallor of their yolks, which were the color of washed-out lemonade rather than the rich, saffron hue displayed by the farmers’ market eggs I cooked at home. The watery, salty whites were like tears, I thought—the tears of hens deranged by their living conditions. My disassociation from the mass farming of eggs was gradually replaced by morbid curiosity. Where exactly were Waffle House eggs being laid? And what was life really like there, both for the hens and those that tended them?
One afternoon, after finishing my meal, I flagged down my server. “I’m a huge Waffle House fan,” I said. “Where do you all get your eggs?” She stared at me blankly. “Like, what farm do they come from?” I asked. The server laughed. “I have no idea,” she said. “I’ve never thought about it. Hold on, precious.” She dashed into the back of the restaurant, and then returned to my booth. “The boxes say Glenview Farms.” I returned home eager to search the Internet, determine Glenview Farms’ address, and go there. Gaining entry would be the hard part, I figured. Surely factory farms wouldn’t allow access to the general public, so I would need a disguise. Perhaps I could pose as an employee or some kind of inspector. What would I wear? I imagined it might involve galoshes, maybe dungarees. Some kind of badge. Well, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
The bridge turned out to be nonexistent. Glenview Farms is a subsidiary of the massive conglomerate US Foods, and the proud producer of crumbled cheeses, flavored cheese slices, horseradish and chive white cheddar cheese, and an assortment of other dairy-ish foodstuffs—“Straight from the farm to you.”
When I emailed US Foods and asked for the address of the Glenview Farms that supplied eggs to my local Waffle House, their response was evasive:
Thank you for inquiring with US Foods. I’m sorry but we would not be able to supply this information. You would need to get that from Waffle House. For reasons of confidentiality, we would not be able to give out addresses of our suppliers or our customer’s suppliers.
I emailed Waffle House’s customer relations department with the same question, but they never replied. US Foods’ use of the word “confidentiality” was jarring, and together with Waffle House’s silence I had a vague sense of wrongdoing on my part.
But wouldn’t it be nice to believe Glenview Farms is, in fact, nestled in a fertile valley that is, indeed, adjacent to a glen? What is a glen? To be honest, I don’t quite know. Eating at a Waffle House requires some measure of imagination. When your parents say that a deceased family pet has been sent to live on a beautiful farm in the country, are you really going to pipe up and ask, “Which farm was it, exactly?” As I sit in a Waffle House booth, I picture the farm my eggs come from is the same farm to which beloved pets retire. There are old farmers wearing overalls, pies cooling upon windowsills, scruffy old dogs, cats lazing about, and suns perpetually in the act either of setting or rising. The hens cluck jovially, pecking corn kernels scattered in the dewy grass by a young woman—smiling and fresh-faced, the kind of plump that signifies abundance and health, cooing gently as they all gather around her wooden clogs.