A Texas-shaped waffle at a Holiday Inn in Port Arthur, Tex. (Michael S. Williamson/The…)
It was a good night for a beacon, with fog as thick as the forest all along U.S. Highway 74. And there, in the soft edge of the headlights, a billboard promised that up ahead in the town of Murphy stood a Best Western hotel. “Pet friendly.” “Free Internet.” And, as if on cue, “Free Belgian Waffle Breakfast.”
Here, too, in the mountain music homeland of western North Carolina — a place remote enough that fugitive Eric Rudolph, the so-called Olympic Park bomber, long evaded the FBI in the hills and hollows until arrested early one morning in 2003 in Murphy — a bed for the night comes with make-your-own waffles?
I, an overfed modern-day Meriwether Lewis, having recently driven 7,253 miles on a trip from New Hampshire to Texas and back, can report: At chain hotels alongside interstates in Waterbury, Conn., Meridian, Miss., and Van Horn, Tex., and just about everywhere in between, weary travelers are sure to wander close to the hotel lobby and discover an odd oasis. It’s not quite a restaurant, nor a cozy dining room, but a “breakfast area” in which make-your-own waffles bake alongside plastic packages of syrup, and solitary bites are accompanied by the nonstop narration of a flat-screen TV.
A world of waffles
This may not seem worthy of a news flash from the road. But it is true that we as a people are what — and how — we eat. And over the past decade, chain hotel breakfast areas have clogged exits at an astonishing rate along the paved arteries of America. The percentage of chains offering a free breakfast has jumped from only 12 percent in 2004 to nearly 70 percent in 2012, according to a survey by STR Inc., a hotel industry analyst. Nowhere is the trend as strong as at interstate-side locations, where more than 80 percent of all hotels offer a free hot breakfast.
Take, for example, the Shenandoah spine of Interstate 81 in Virginia, where clusters of breakfast-boasting chain hotels buffer one exit after another from Staunton to Cloverdale to Christiansburg. Or make the long haul on Interstate 20 across Texas, where Exit 288 at Abilene looms as a masterpiece of the modern American roadside corral.
Cowhands once set millions of longhorns marching north from Abilene toward America’s dinner tables. Now passing motorists herd into the parking lots outside a Chili’s, a Dairy Queen, a Taco Casa and a Cracker Barrel, to name a few. On the approach to Exit 288, billboards trumpet all kinds of hotel-chain enticements, from tractor-trailer parking to indoor pools to high-speed Internet. (Is there still a low-speed Internet?)
Waffles, though, are king. Frontier Inn & Suites has a “Free, Hot Breakfast.” Elegante Suites: “Free, Hot Breakfast.” America’s Best Value Inn: “Deluxe Breakfast.” Best Western: “Hot Breakfast.” Super 8: “Breakfast.”
Such predictable packaging has benefits for a traveler when quick and easy is the breakfast goal. “If you’re Mr. Road Warrior, you don’t really want a surprise,” said STR’s Jan Freitag.
But it is worth considering the costs of this world of waffles all cooked from the same mold. If the lure is to sleep, eat and move on, we Americans taste less and less of the diverse character of the country we call home. And as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.
Comfort without community
Just 12 hours before our foggy deliverance on that evening in Murphy, my son and I had wandered from our room to the breakfast lounge in a Hampton Inn in Lexington, Va. My son headed straight to the corner of the buffet, poured a cupful of batter onto the hot waffle iron and closed the lid. We sat at a table beneath the vaulted ceiling and waited. A gray-haired man seated nearby talked with a woman as she wiped down a table. The man explained that he used to have a business that made women’s dresses, but that all went to China. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country,” he said.
The woman bused a tray and returned. “Well, people will always have to eat,” the man told her. “So you’re okay.”
The waffle iron beeped. My son carried out the rest of the ritual: butter, syrup, big bites. The onetime dress manufacturer moved on to his day. Halfway through his waffle, my son ran out of gas. I took a bite. The waffle, I said, tasted way too sugary. My son thought about it, then added: “And it has a tiny hint of Styrofoam in it.”
There is good to these hotel chain breakfasts. Most often, the waffles are served alongside a basket of apples or bananas. And I agree with those who contend that the country would be better off if we all cooked more of the food we eat; pouring batter into a hot griddle, even if the syrup comes in individual-sized plastic packages, certainly offers some of the comfort of home.