Background: My informant, BT, lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for 8 years. Interview conducted over FaceTime.
Me: “Tell me about any Alabama folklore you know. Unofficial things, stuff you wouldn’t find in a textbook.”
BT: “Well, there’s the Waffle House Index. I first heard about it from a friend while I was at Bama [the University of Alabama]. So Waffle Houses are open 24/7, they never close–“
Me: “Oh wait, can you explain what Waffle House is for people who may be unfamiliar with it?”
BT: “Yes. Waffle House is a restaurant chain in the South that’s like I-HOP but better, in my personal opinion. It’s like your typical diner, fast food chain.”
Me: “Perfect, continue.”
BT: “Right. So Waffle Houses never close, ever, except when a storm is really bad. So meteorologists started realizing that there was a correlation between the severity of a storm and Waffle House closures in the area, and realized they could track storms by Waffle House. If a Waffle House is closed in an area with a storm, then it’s all over. So if a storm is coming and people are thinking about sheltering in place, someone will usually ask, ‘well, is Waffle House closed?’ If it’s not, then the storm’s not severe enough, and you can continue on with your daily life.”
Analysis: I find the cultural significance of Waffle House to be interesting in this folk belief. Rather than trusting an institution like the National Weather Service, there’s a greater priority and belief in the knowledge of a local chain like Waffle House. Although Waffle House is a regional chain restaurant, the individual management and function of individual restaurants likely contributes to their reputation as feeling more “local” compared to a nationalized weather service. As a gathering place that is consistent and dependable in hours, the ironic trust in Waffle House over any other means to informally gauge weather is humorous of course, but also says a lot about regionalized trust and identity.