Oxford, Mississippi fancies itself as a sort of archetypal modern Southern American town - a unique kind of place that embraces the modernity of the New South without foregoing its “Andy Griffith Show” Americana charm. It has developed the trappings of the 21st century - e.g., craft breweries, high speed internet, bike lanes - while maintaining the quaint small town charm lost in the Madisons and Buckheads and Germantowns from which much of the Ole Miss student body hails. Depending on whom you ask, it’s a place that’s too liberal and Yankee-ified, or too Conservative and mired in an Old South mindset. With its art, music, small business culture, stately Magnolias, and haute couture-obsessed denizens, it’s basically a Charleston boutique shy of being the cover story of every issue of “Garden and Gun” yet to be printed.
Which is to say that it’s all a bunch of whitewashed bullshit.
This isn’t to say that Oxford isn’t great, because it is. It’s a great place to visit and live. We are all entirely correct in loving it, and the haters (and losers, of which there are many) are wrong to hate it. But you can only put so much lipstick on a pig, even if it’s a really nice, good-looking pig.
Look on a map. Oxford is still in north Mississippi. It might have modern condos with BMWs parked out front, but the town is still surrounded by soybean and cotton farms. The town square was burned down during the Civil War. North of the city is a dam that was built by the TVA during the Great Depression. The region has a particularly awful legacy of racial strife, poverty, and that unique kind of American classism that we like to think doesn’t exist anymore. Those things haven’t entirely gone away, either, despite our best efforts to compartmentalize them both in physical spaces and in our own memories.
Any study in human history, but particularly American history and even then in particular the history of Mississippi, will make evident that these sorts of blemishes and scars don’t fade easily or quickly, nor can you make them that much less obvious by trying to cover them up.
This implication here is that Oxford (in spite of the folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance, the Center for the study of Southern Culture, the Yokanapatawpha Conference, and all of those other great not-sports Ole Miss outfits) really wants to entirely be something that it is only partway. And while we understand that gussying up your digs to attract a wealthier tax base is prudent - who else will fund the aforementioned craft breweries, high-speed internet, and bike lanes? - you can’t forsake where you came from.
That’s why Oxford needs to build a damned Waffle House already.
Oxford has a few 24-hour eateries. There are the ubiquitous McDonald’s and the unique Chicken-on-a-Stick Chevron station, and maybe a Taco Bell or a Domino’s or something is slinging product around the clock. Oxford even has an IHOP and a Huddle House (the huddling is what your family does for warmth after you all contract botulism from eating at Huddle House) for those who want some sort of hot carbohydrates+fat+coffee combination at any hour. That’s fine, but none of those things are a Waffle House.
Waffle House, unlike much of Oxford, is decidedly not bullshit. Waffle House’s truly great secret is that it maintains a distinct lack of secrecy. It has large, clear windows by day, and enough fluorescent fixtures to adequately light an operating table by night. The line cooks are operating in plain enough view that one could be said to be straight up dining in the kitchen and not be that far off. The digs are spartan. The floor is somehow both slippery and sticky. There are waffles on the menu.
The employees are all required to wear prominent name tags, because they don’t get to have their business on the clock. They are mostly lovely people, and that’s because most of us in our everyday interactions are that way. But if they don’t wanna be nice, they won’t. If they have cause to argue and shout at each other in front of you, they’re gonna do it. If their management has just ripped them a new one wide open enough to cause them to blubberingly sob while ringing you up, they will.*
And you will most definitely come as you are, you flawed cretin. You’ll drag yourself in there needing carbs and coffee after an all-nighter studying for an exam you’re going to fail. Or you’ll pull up after a marathon beer pong session in need of something to soak up all of that natty light. Or you’ll come in camouflage, construction boots, shitkickers, or whatever gear suggests that you’re about to spend a day outside getting dirty. You might be a cop, a firefighter, a long haul trucker or - as we wager is the case with much of our readership - an obnoxious, drunk undergraduate. If you’re wearing nicer clothing, jewelry, or makeup, it’s because it’s something you put on before you left the house the night before.
All of that is fine. Waffle House doesn’t care. They won’t hate you, nor will they love you. They, like most of humanity that has or will ever have existed, don’t know who you are and don’t care to know either. You’re a mouth hole attached to a sack of chemical reactions - one that could probably use some more sleep and definitely needs some exercise - and you need something to eat. They’ll happily oblige, and do so for a modest fee! (And, yes, please tip them nicely.)
In that sort of honest anonymity, that sort of idea that none of us are really all that important and yet somehow we all are thought of deserving to eat, that is where Waffle House promotes the true equality and harmony that Oxford needs. In today’s Oxford, like in much of America, one can easily surround him-or-herself with people who look, think, and act a lot like his-or-herself. In a theoretical Oxford Waffle House though, those bubbles are quickly popped. At any given hour, you could be among the WASP-y scions of a Memphis banking clan, an Ole Miss football player craving patty melts, a stoner bluegrass musician who just wrapped up a set at Proud Larry’s, a bagman plotting his next move, or a struggling liberal arts graduate student strung out on coffee in hopes of timely submitting yet another draft of her thesis. You can be rich or poor, black or white, dumb or less-dumb, and not only will Waffle House not care; Waffle House won’t even really notice that you’re even there.
So, Oxonians, ask yourself why it is you must drive at least a half-hour to get to this absolute future necessity of Oxford life?
You know this is something you all want. Better yet, you know that this is something your town and our Ole Miss community needs. You know That our ideal South is forged in the fires of a 24-hour operating range. You know that you need a refuge to just be a nobody for a while. You know that you often find yourself craving hashbrowns scattered, smothered, and covered, with two sunny-side eggs and toast. You know that you really want a Waffle House.
So email the mayor. Contact your alderman. Make this happen. Make Oxford the true Southern town it fancies itself as, and let totality of our town’s humanity have a refuge to exist and not be concerned with anything other than a $5 plate of breakfast food.
*Yes this happened to the author, and on the morning of the Fourth of July, no less. It was just outside of Asheville, North Carolina a few years ago. The young woman at the register was given a nice tip out of sympathy. The hashbrowns were outstanding that morning.