March 2023 Feature Writer

Eva Erhardt

Eva Erhardt is a 21 year old writer and filmmaker born and raised in sunny Tampa, Florida. At SCAD Atlanta, she serves as the editor in chief for both SCAN and The Connector. 

“Waffle House Sirloin”

It has been officially three weeks of the exact same tired and grueling thing. Wake up, gather the kids, exercise, breakfast, activity one, activity two, lunch… so on. Programs go on late into the night, and often, I’m collapsing into bed at three, four in the morning. The next day, I wake the kids all over again, flicking on the cabin’s fluorescent lights to a choir of moans. Usually, I groan along with them. I’m so very tired, and this wasn’t a job that allowed you to have much room for exhaustion. 

There are blisters on my hands from sweeping, and a growing lump on my head from a rappelling accident. I can feel the fuzz grow on my legs and underarms. My prescription for birth control ran out within the first few days of camp, and without  solid phone reception, I am left without it. My hormones munch inside of me, body slamming oncoming PMS and typical girly-crush feelings. 

I am sick of canoeing. I am sick of macrame. I am sick of hearing the same devotions every week, pretending to listen to recycled Christ stories. I am never chosen by the guys I want, and the guys who actually choose me are old enough to rent a car. The weather is ugly. Heat collects in strange, dark places, and if it was possible, I would be expected to clean it up with a moldy mop. I am sick of getting yelled at by parents for not enforcing sunscreen. I am sick of the gravel that gets stuck in my shoes. I am sick of the bus that never has air conditioning, and I am sick of wearing a bathing suit every damn day. But most of all, I am sick of summer camp food. 

It sits in my stomach like a rock, continuous salt on my tongue. Personal pizzas have lost their charm. I know that the nacho cheese, excuse me, queso, comes from a can. Three meals a

day, we shovel out trays of ‘family style’ food. The counselors serve the kids first, then themselves. You are lucky to get a stray fish stick. Good luck with finding tartar sauce. Morning. Breakfast. Powdered eggs, revived with tap water. French toast sticks, still cold in the middle. Orange juice, from concentrate, served in big plastic pitchers. To everyone’s confusion, it’s always served on ice. Small packs of cereal. Individual milk. Greasy bacon. After the meal, I check the back porch for bears, then dump the cool, solid grease into the trap in the ground, watching the white mass glob up in the pit. Don’t think about how it looks like icing. It’ll ruin dessert later. 

Lunch. Cold cuts. American cheese. Stiff hoagies, and full loaves of bread, packaging decorated with a smiling, mid-century girl. Chewing my mayonnaise sandwich, I stare at her. Glare at her. Her mother would yell at me too. Cold crinkle-cut fries. Shredded lettuce. Wet tomatoes, leaking their pink juice onto the plastic table. At the end of the meal, someone crackles onto the intercom. Ice cream… you scream… we all scream for ice cream. It is a blood bath. A brawl for ice cream sandwiches and Creamsicles and Chocotacos. Watch as your head counselor secures a nondescript cardboard box, wrestles it open. Fruit popsicles. Gross! She is shunned. 

Dinner. Every piece exists as a staple of the Americana food chain. Everything is out of a 1950s cookbook, but only if aliens were penning the thing, making use of ingredients that had been frozen on a long-forgotten planet. Tough meatloaf. Spongy burgers. Mashed potatoes made from rehydrated flakes. Salted green beans. Wilted salads, decorated with sad, powdery carrots. Gravy also comes from a can. At first, the dessert is a shining star, a light in this dark, gross, pre-prepared wasteland. The woman in the kitchen can bake like a true Southern lady,

making blue ribbon worthy cakes, pies, and cookies. Or maybe these are also store-bought, and just seem incredible in comparison. Food for thought. 

Three weeks. 21 days. All I’ve consumed is what is placed in front of me. Thoughtless, mindless. Eating is not pleasurable, instead a way to fuel myself. On some days, it feels like I am eating tablespoons of iodized table salt. I can’t even think of the MSG on ‘Chinese Day.’ Sodium must make up 70% of my bloodstream, a constant pressure of salt against my tongue. Ford, one of my co-counselors, has begun drinking pickle juice to help with salt-induced cramps. Although it seems like a spectacle, he is genuine. 

He has lots of tricks like this. One day, while sitting next to me, ripping apart a Salisbury steak with a flimsy plastic knife, he tells me he is imagining he’s eating a real steak. A ribeye, t-bone, New York Strip. He chews the meat compote, and I enter the fantasy with him. I’m a vegetarian, but I’m more than welcome to abandon this dining hall and join him at the steakhouse. Honestly, I am so out of my mind, I consider if I would eat a hunk of meat, if it was seasoned, and well prepared, unlike what we’re used to here. 

“Where are we?” I ask him, attempting to saw a row of corn off its stiff cobb. “My mom likes Texas Roadhouse, but my Dad likes Outback.” 

Ford looks at me, food pocketing in his left cheek. “Naw,” he says, his Southern accent amplified by the meaty bulge in his mouth. “We’re at Waffle House.” 

“Waffle House?” I ask. The corn crumbles onto the plastic, cream-colored plate. “Don’t they only do breakfast?” 

He clicks his tongue. “I forget you’re not from Atlanta.” 

“I’m not even from Georgia,” I correct him.

“Shame,” he says, still working away at the meat, although it should be soft enough to chew by now, considering its mechanically separated nature. “Waffle House gots the best steak I’ve ever had. USDA-certified sirloin, on cheese eggs and hashbrowns. Raisin toast on the side for sweetness. 10 dollars for heaven on a plate.” 

I try to recall what meat tastes like, imagining what it would be like to chew this fantasy Waffle House steak. More salt comes to my mind. “How different is Waffle House from this?” I use my knife, pointing at my sad little plate. 

Ford shrugs. “Just is. I could eat it every single day if I could.” Once again, he is genuine. I believe he really could. He then considers: “Maybe it’s the choice. Getting your say on what you can eat and order.” 

Things get worse as time goes on. If an overabundance of terrible food was bad, a nightmare was brewing on the horizon. It’s a particularly hot day when I’m on the way to my lifeguard post, and Gino, a friend, stops me, hand on my sunburned arm. “They’re not gonna feed us today,” He smiles, head cocked, hands out in front of him. It’s like he’s Jerry, at the start of a Seinfeld episode, working the bit. Concerning as it was, it seemed funny at the moment. To him, at least. 

“What does that mean?” I am not reflecting his body language, hands on my hips. Am I being Elaine? 

“They underestimated the number of kids that signed up for this week, dude,” His head bobs, still smiling. “Staff isn’t getting fed, forreal!” 

I take a mental headcount of the food under my bed. The family-sized box of Cheerios, the case of energy bars, and electricity-colored Gatorades. It felt like I had been surviving off of

that for weeks already, shoveling in handfuls of cereal between activities. I look around, squinting my eyes against the reflective lake, even through my huge sunglasses. Some other counselors sun on the dock in small, structured bikinis. Even from here, I could count their ribs. Maybe skipping a meal would do me some good. 

I am wrong. Lunch slides by easily, powered by hilarity and that little skinny voice at the back of my head. Dinner rolls around, and it gets harder, watching my kids as they dunk Pizzadillas into little bowls of marinara, and scarf down Jello cups. 

Morning is hell, and lunch the next day is harder. Gino still thinks it’s funny, as do most of the guys. I line up Cheerios around my plate, laying them flat. Without any overlapping, they look more plentiful. I tell myself that, ignoring the child next to me as she gums a grilled cheese. 

The week climbs on, and no one is acting like they’re on a sitcom anymore. Everyone is pissed, and starving, and living off of packets of Goldfish found in the allergen kitchen. At a weekly meeting, someone throws a sandal at our camp director’s son. “We’re fucking hungry, Artie!” 

Ordering from the food supplier was taking way longer than expected, so the easy solution is a night out for all the counselors. Smooth things out. Inside PR. Program directors would take care of the kids, put on a movie in the Colosseum, and turn the lights out at an unreasonable hour. In turn, the counselors would get to go camping. At the campground, we could swim, hang out, and the next, go whitewater rafting. We are so exhausted, from both the leadership and the lack of food, a day away from camp seems like a dream. No one asks about what we would be eating. (Pushing the envelope there.)

The whole day is rainy and quite gloomy for July in Georgia. Swimming isn’t an option, so we spend the day in tents, playing cards, pushing dares. Still, we’re starving, and willing to pick at whatever our leader, George, had packed. We expect campfire food, hotdogs, and Dough Boys. To an outsider, this is disgusting, but to us, it seems palatable. Delicious even. After yet another game of Uno, we make our way down to the fire and ask him when dinner was starting. His mouth straightens into a flat, thin line as he scratches his head avoidantly. “How mad would you be if I told you we left it back at camp?” 

Answer? Very mad. The group of junior counselors erupt into a choir of anger. We’re starving and in the middle of nowhere. How dare he? I am sixteen, starving, and probably about to die in rural Georgia. You could drive a car down the raised veins in my neck. 

Someone must be pulling a shoe off their foot because George quickly raises his hands in defeat. “Okay! I’m joking!” 

“So you did bring the food?” Kaite questions, defensive as a snake. 

“No, but —” 

The shoe goes flying, and George ducks, á la George Bush. He raises his hands again, palms outward. To us? To God? I don’t know. “No! No!” He pleads. Shoes are prepared, sneakers, sandals, and boots, ready for launch. “Pro-Staff thought they’d do something nice, and pay for y’all to go to Waffle House!” 

Weapons are lowered. A Nike tumbles to the ground. A single Grateful Dead Chaco is clutched against a beating heart. One prayer is in our collective mind. One sacred, beautiful place of worship, here to save us from our starvation. “Waffle House!” It’s a joint cry. You can hear the exclamation in our voices.

We gather on the big, yellow bus, and are driven out of camp. The excitement is palpable. Next to me, Kaite lists out what she’s going to get. “Cup of coffee, orange juice, raisin toast, regular toast, cheese toast,” she keeps thinking. “Apple sauce, grits, chocolate waffle, peanut butter waffle, double waffle…” 

Once again, I’m able to dive into the fantasy. The only time I had ever been to Waffle House was when my dad needed a bathroom on a road trip, and the man behind the counter told me I needed to order something. One fried egg and I was out of there, so I was practically a virgin to the Atlanta-based chain. 

George tells us we each can spend eight dollars. I learn quickly, at the Waffle House, that this can go a long way. We crowd into the restaurant, splitting into the booths, at least three people on each bench. Ford walks me through the menu, and I land on a peanut butter waffle, apple juice, hashbrowns and scrambled eggs. “You want cheese on that, baby?” Asks the waitress. 

“On what?” I ask, flipping the sticky menu over. It makes a slight suction off the table. 

“Anything,” she replies, scribbling into her notepad. “The hash browns or eggs mostly. Although I’ve seen people do it on their waffles before.” 

I decline her offer, then listen to my friends’ orders. Bailey gets the sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit with fruit. Kimmy wants a BLT, no T. Max orders a heaping pile of hashbrowns, scattered, smothered, and covered (I later learn this is Waffle House slang for onions and cheese). Gino is craving a Vanilla Coke. And Ford gets the sirloin steak, raisin toast on the side. Everyone splits a bowl of fruit, and I can feel it as real, genuine juice gifts my tongue with lightning-bright vitamin C.

Everything goes down real easy. Waffle House sirloin is a blessing, and no one thinks about tomorrow. Salt doesn’t seem to bother me.

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