Great American Institutions

The tower of Big Ben, London.What constitutes a “great institution?” I guess the best definition of a great institution is something that is a “characteristic and persistent feature in social or national life or habits.” Back home I’d think the pub could be considered a great British institution, steak and kidney pudding, fish and chips, Big Ben, the Tower of London, Marks and Spencer, etc, etc …

Part of the joy of coming to live in a different country is discovering those things that represent the character, social history and traditional habits of a place. Something, that when you see it or hear of it you instantly recognise it, understand its significance and its place in the foundation of the culture in which it exists. If I said Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace … these are all icons of national identity and as such you’d immediately have a sense of the history and social significance that each of these hold in the national identity of each country. They feature large in the collective consciousness. But there are other things, smaller things but no less significant or prominent in the collective consciousness and therefore worthy of inclusion in the category of ‘national institution’.

There are two of these great American institutions almost on our doorstep – which in American terms means they could be at least a couple of miles away by car – and they are Waffle House and Dairy Queen. These two establishments alone could each be considered to be instrumental in the increase in girth to the waistline of the general populace!

Inside a Waffle House

For a Brit, unfamiliar with such havens of culinary delight, Waffle House might best be considered as the equivalent of a greasy spoon (I stress the word ‘might’ because I think they’re a lot better than your average British greasy spoon but it’s the closest equivalent I can come up with) in that they have that greasy spoon taste but done in an American Diner fashion and, they’re all exactly the same so you know precisely what to expect when you go in.

Waffle House Logo

The first Waffle House was opened in Atlanta, Georgia in 1955. After the first restaurant was opened there were no further plans for any more but customer loyalty grew rapidly and the tradition of providing “the friendliest service in town” was established. 1957 saw the second restaurant opened followed by two more so that by 1961 there were four small restaurants. The ’60s saw the establishment of the restaurant chain and the “yellow sign” could be seen across the Southeast along interstate highways and up and down city streets. After more than 50 years of friendly atmosphere and ‘great food fast’ this all American phenomenon has, without doubt, become a great American institution. And, best of all, it’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Texas cheesesteak melt with hashbrowns.

Dairy Queen is often seen as the symbol of small-town America – the stores, were a fixture of social life in small towns in Midwestern and Southern United States during the 1950s and 1960s – whereas, in fact the first Dairy Queen store opened in Joliet, Illinois in 1940, however, the the formula was developed in 1938 by John Fremont “Grandpa” McCullough and his son Bradley – “Dairy Queen” is actually the name of the soft serve ice cream product. The story goes that they convinced a friend to offer the product in his ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois. On the first day more than 1,600 servings were dished out in the first two hours, thus, it wasn’t long before the first Dairy Queen store was opened as detailed above.

What can I say about Dairy Queen? There’s nothing quite like sitting outside on a bench, in the shade of an umbrella, on a hot sunny afternoon, or in the cool of the evening as the sun slowly sets on the horizon, eating a chocolate frosted vanilla cone. Ahhh … Bliss!

Dairy Queen store, I74 West, Charlotte

Definitely two ‘Great American Institutions’.


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