VOL. 129 | NO. 61 | Friday, March 28, 2014
By Dan Conaway
MEMPHIS RITUAL. The Memphis of Memphis is best observed and shared around tables, best accompanied by good food and best expressed in good stories.
Mildred’s story, for instance.
On a Downtown basement wall in the oldest public building in Memphis, Calvary Episcopal Church, there’s a plaque. That’s not unusual for a church wall, but this particular wall, the room it’s in, and the Lenten ritual observed there are a kind of Memphis liturgy, and the woman honored on that plaque is the celebrant.
You see, for more than 70 years, Mildred Wiggs White made waffles for the Waffle Shop. When she could no longer stand comfortably over her fabled iron in front of that wall, she pulled a chair up. When she could no longer comfortably reach the iron from that chair, the church lowered the front legs so the chair would lean in for her.
When Mildred Wiggs White was lowered into her grave, there was a waffle placed on her casket.
This isn’t just lunch, people, this is the flavor of who we are served up one plate, one story at a time in that basement, one storied speaker at a time in the church above it, for a short time in early spring. As I’ve written before, while the Calvary Waffle Shop is open only during Lent, I give up the stuff it serves 325 days a year to get to these 40.
Join in the special ritual.
On Monday, it’s chicken giblets and rice and chess pie, and on Tuesday it’s gumbo, turnip greens, shrimp mousse and Tennessee bourbon pie. On Wednesday, it’s fish pudding and cornsticks and schaum torte, and fish pudding again on Friday and chocolate bourbon cake. On Thursday, it’s corned beef and cabbage and fudge pie. Any day, it’s chicken salad and chicken noodle soup and chicken hash, and it’s spaghetti and rye bread, peppermint ice cream and chocolate sauce, and the rum-soaked richness of Boston cream pie, the eggy oily excess of homemade mayonnaise and tartar sauce, and the wiggly wonder of tomato aspic.
And Mildred’s waffles and sausage.
Up in the church, famed preachers from across our city and land mount the pulpit for the Calvary Lenten Speakers Series. Down in the basement, the comforting liturgy flows from the kitchen and its rich tradition is shared at table. Would-be kings, queens and heirs apparent to our commerce, politics and jurisprudence sit elbow-to-elbow with our hoi polloi, with our characters, legends and pretenders all in common praise of greased, salted, sugared and floured conversation.
And while it’s not strictly kosher, it’s not strictly ecumenical either.
From that pulpit one Lent, I heard Rabbi Micah Greenstein say, in his warm and wonderful style, “When you see me in heaven, I won’t mind if you’re surprised – I just hope you won’t be disappointed.”
So to paraphrase, come on down to the Waffle Shop – you might be surprised, but you will not be disappointed.
I’m a Memphian, and you’d best hurry. The service concludes April 11.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.