The Great Waffle Boogaloo

by Ellen in

On Sunday, my kids in Sunday School asked me, "Soooo, if we are supposed to GIVE STUFF UP for Lent, why does our church want to clog people's arteries EVERYDAY with waffles, chicken hash, and fish pudding? And what IS fish pudding anyway?"

Is it horrible that the song "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof popped into my head, and now every time I travel to the 1st floor, it follows me around like the worst elevator muzak ever?

I have been wracking (and wrecking) my brain to come up with an answer that will satisfy me. I mean, I'm really good at BSing an answer that my 8th and 9th grade kids will buy, but it's not good enough for me. Yesterday I came to the realization that I may never understand the Waffle Shop, but I'm allowed to like it anyway, and everyone else will just have to deal with my overt fickleness.

But THEN, I encountered a speaker yesterday at lunch (yes, while eating the Waffle Shop's homemade chicken salad and peppermint ice cream with chocolate sauce) who loved this thing. Like any outsider, she was perplexed by the busyness, the deliciousness, and the productivity of the whole show. Hundreds of people get served in minutes by volunteers wearing red aprons and smiles. PS old ladies are really skilled at making lots of waffles at one time. In the Waffle Shop, you have to work your way up to waffle-maker. Entry level jobs are lettuce driers, orange mayonnaise pipers, and chicken salad scoopers.

Anyway, I got to sit next to Barbara Crafton, Episcopal Priest and storyteller extraordinaire from Manhattan. I could listen to her read the phone book, and I'm NOT an auditory processor. She's smart, inspiring, and not small. I think she's great. I think she's even greater now, because she wrote down her thoughts about the Waffle Shop. I LOVE a good outsider's perspective on these things, because Waffle Shop is hard to swallow in a flash meeting. To really understand all that goes on, you have to live it. But I really love her insights and her experience she wrote about. Next time my kids ask my why, I'll use my friend Barbara's words:

February 24, 2010
I knew something was up in Memphis when I got an invitation to become a fan of The Waffle Shop at Calvary Church. It was going to get underway at the beginning of Lent, they said. Lent, do you tell me? There seemed to be a lot of of excitement about the food, more than is usual for Lenten fare. The fish pudding! The gumbo! Who was making the Bourbon Chocolate Pies? Something about tomato aspic, too, and peppermint ice cream.

Good Lord. "I'll be right down!" I typed in, and pressed SEND.

Calvary's renowned Lenten Preaching Series provides cover for this annual food fest, to which hundreds of people come from all over Memphis. It's at the Episcopal church, but one of the Baptist ministers in town seems to volunteer in the salad room. Waffle Shop is ecumenical in scope. Oh, the waffles! The chicken hash! The shrimp mousse and the Boston cream pie! How is one to choose? And how is one to recover from all that food? Those people all seem so friendly, but I think they were trying to kill us.

Here is the thing: in the South, you don't choose between faith and food. The church was full for the sermon and the basement was full for the food: simple as that. It is a culture of exuberance about every good gift, and Southerners are impatient with any attempt to look aside from God's goodness. They know very well what hard times are, and they just don't feel the need to court them.

"Did you know they got $10,000 for one of those I AM A MAN signs?" someone said at dinner.

You remember those signs, hundreds of them. A photo exhibit in the airport brought it all back: there was Dr. King, there were the quiet people, walking forward together, there were the signs, plain block letters: I AM A MAN.

"You're kidding! I've still got mine," our hostess said. "I don't want to sell it, though. Things'd have to get pretty tough before I sold that."

That was a white person talking. A church lady. Yes: the church, with its tomato aspic and its chicken hash, its phalanx of older ladies at their waffle irons, was also willing to struggle its way out of the dark side of southern history to the other side. This struggle continues: Memphis is a different city from the one in which Dr. King died, and it is also the same city. It is a work in progress, more visibly so than some cities, a blend of cultures more loving and mutual than Yankees usually imagine when they imagine the American South.

That was a polarized age. This one is, too. There are times in human history when the devil gets the upper hand, and people take a perverse pride in their own snarkiness.
But they don't have to stay that way. People can listen and learn and grow and change.

You can read her blog here and listen to her sermons from the Lenten Preaching Series here. If you have a few minutes, I recommend listening. Her voice is wonderful.

Some more shameless advertising for Calvary:

And fish pudding is a misnomer for all the wonderful goodness that it actually is. It is more like a giant, delicious, coronary-inducing fish stick. I really think it's named so grossly in order to decrease demand for it. If you're brave enough to try something called "fish pudding," you're entitled to it not running out. For those not brave enough to try it, well, you're just missing out.