I’ve found myself at a Waffle House for moments big and small: on an early Saturday morning in high school, bleary-eyed before taking the SAT; my freshman year of college, when my first boyfriend told me he loved me; my senior year of college, the morning after my first real night of partying; in graduate school, after a night of clubbing in Nashville with my girlfriends.

Before it became a Christmas dinner destination, Waffle House was a longstanding family dinner spot. As early back as I can remember, when my mom was still married, it was such a regularly visited place that we knew to show up wearing long sleeves, lest we risk getting freezed out by the aggressive air conditioning. This was back when the diner, with its small and single room, was still halved into smoking and non-smoking sections. My mom and stepdad would rest their cigarettes on a small silver saucer, exhaling the smoke up into the air above our faces while we sipped chocolate milk or Coke with a pump of cherry syrup.

Time passed and things changed. My parents filed for divorce; my stepdad moved out. We cut corners to save money. Soon after, my father went to prison, and our finances took an even greater hit. My mom tried hard to remain optimistic, and we tried hard to return her worried smiles with genuine ones, though the feeling that we were on our own seemed more ominous than ever. My brothers and I felt older than we actually were, tired in a self-reflexive way that left one more tired, panic settling in a pit in our stomachs. 

The holidays were thus an unpleasant reminder of all the things we didn’t have and my mom wasn’t able to give, a time of internal bargaining: Do I pay the light bill or buy my kids some DVDs? This is the Christmas story of many families, the reason why the holidays can be a stressful season.

So, in the face of all that was uncertain, unstable, or simply disappointing, she streamlined and got creative. Forget cooking a multi-course dinner and racking up credit card debt over presents we didn’t really need. We stuffed ourselves in our Chevy S10 pickup truck and hit the highway in search of the closest Waffle House. It had somehow shifted from the place up the street to get a cheap meal to a glowing highway beacon, purveyor of the perfect Christmas dinner.

In spite of all the trips to Waffle House I’ve made over the years, the Christmas dinner ones stick out, of course, for what they symbolized. On those Christmases, in spite of who or what we had lost, what did not change was us: my mom, my brothers, me, the four of us sticking it out together. People who knew places to go to forget about things for a little while.

I’ve had my fair share of picturesque Christmas mornings, the kind where a multi-course meal is served on special, Christmas tree-adorned china; the kind where everyone wears matching pajamas and, as the new girlfriend, I’m bequeathed, to my great mortification, with my own plaid set. But Waffle House Christmases are the ones I most cherish.

In the sweet smell of batter and pecans, the climate controlled air, and the brown scroll-shaped designs that cover the china, I found the layered sensory experience of a special occasion. And in the consistency, I found the richness of tradition: the waffles were always fluffy, the toast always cut into perfect triangles, and the waitresses always smoothed down a paper napkin to neatly rest your silverware on.

Even when I insisted on feeding the jukebox quarters to cue up a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, the staff was warm and forgiving, and instead of worrying whether a Honey Baked Ham was worth the splurge, we marveled at how the waitresses and cooks worked in perfectly-timed harmony.

When I eat at a Waffle House solo, the din of clattering plates and sizzling food and the nearness of fellow solo diners are gentle reminders that I’m not, in fact, alone. Little wonder that on major holidays, you have to work to find an open seat; my family has been known to drive past three locations in search of a Waffle House with enough room to seat four.

It’s no surprise that we often conflate class and foodways, that we speak in the tricky language of “good” and “bad” food, which can easily turn into a value assessment of the eater. On the surface, it’s easy to write Waffle House off: bad food, cheap food, last resort food. But on those occasions, the thing that was most important about Waffle House was that its door was always open—and still is.

My mom’s insistence that how we lived and looked could differ from expectation and elude perfectionism took many shapes and flavors, some more substantial than others. Don't wear heels if you hate them. Be kind. Do what feels right. To hell with cooking on Christmas.

These days, my family is too big to fit in a Waffle House booth, since we've added new partners, spouses, and a baby to the mix. The tradition of eating there as a family faded away at some point in high school, when the first child went off to college, a new stepdad joined the family, and my mom found her way back to the pleasure of cooking meals at home. Now an empty nester, my mom saves Christmas at Waffle House for when the kids are fulfilling holiday duties at other households. 

I keep coming back to the table, Christmas or no Christmas. Sometimes I’m there after a long day, after a night of too much drinking, or before the start of a long road trip. I come when I’m hungry, or missing home, or feeling sick and sad and in need of comfort, recalling—even if they aren’t sitting next to me—the condensation gathering on my mom’s glass of Coke, the sound of my brothers and I practicing our recitations of all the ways you can order your hashbrowns (Scattered-Smothered-Covered-Chunked-Diced-Topped-Peppered-Capped…), her gentle warning: “Don’t drink your milk too fast, or you’ll spoil your meal.”

Each time, I return to the essentials: start from the center, spread the butter outward; drizzle syrup until it fills each ironed square; eat the waffle one quadrant at a time.