I grew up in a solid-blue late-primary state, and as such, my diner breakfasts were never once interrupted by Howard Dean.
The same can’t be said for longtime patrons of the Waveland Cafe in Des Moines.
The Waveland and its owner, David “Stoney” Stone, have hosted endless election cycles’ worth of presidential candidates, their surrogates and journalists. But is all the political attention irritating?
I stopped by the Waveland to talk to Stone and see what political lessons for candidates I could learn at this classic pit stop of presidential campaigns.
1. The diner remembers.
At the Iowa State Fair, presidential candidates are introduced at the Des Moines Register’s political soapbox with a stern warning to onlookers that they, Iowan or not, must abide by the terms and conditions of “Iowa Nice.” There will be no jeering or heckling or any such unpleasantness, because, of course, that wouldn’t be Iowa Nice.
But the guarantee of Iowa Niceness isn’t a pass for bad behavior, because of the remarkable length of Iowa Memory.
Stone didn’t have a bad thing to say about any political visitors to the Waveland. But even so, there was something fearsome in the easy manner with which he could recall minute details of each candidate’s visit. What they said, what they ate, and how they and their entourage conducted themselves — whether it was last month or the last century.
(We heard all about the recent visit from “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” producers. They were perfectly friendly. And good tippers. We checked.)
Of course, if someone was poorly behaved and a reporter came along to ask about that person’s visit, it’s not that the reporter would hear anything less than an Iowa Nice reply. But there might just be a hint of disappointment in Stone’s warm chuckle. And that would be devastating.
2. If you care about being president of these United States, you will eat what you’re given, you will eat it in full, and you will enjoy it.
I asked Stone what would be the worst thing a presidential candidate could order. It was a stupid question, because the owner of a cafe is hardly going to say something on his own menu isn’t worth eating.
So, I next asked what was good on the menu. Unsurprisingly, he said all of it. But like a parent with an obvious favorite, Stone and his staff steered me directly to the accomplishments of the Waveland’s hash browns and French toast. I’m not a French toast girl per se, but I’m also not a fool, so that’s what I ate. And if you want to be president, you, too, will be whatever kind of girl the diner says you are.
Food, unsurprisingly, is an important part of a diner owner’s Iowa Memory. Stone could recite to me everything that hometown-hero-slash-“Aquaman” Jason Momoa once ate during a visit to the Waveland: “a full order of hash browns with a full order of biscuits and gravy on top of that, three sunny-side eggs up on top of that, a side of bacon, toast, and juices.” He’s a growing boy.
Do not only eat, but eat a lot. And eat it with gusto. And finish your plate. I got the sense that if my plate were not completely clean at the end of the sitting, it would be remembered, just as surely as my grandmother remembers the time a decade ago I didn’t want another piece of her fluorescent pink cake.
The good news is: The hash browns and French toast are delicious. A lot more delicious than my grandmother’s fluorescent pink cake.
(Oh, and if you are a candidate whose name rhymes with Floory Snooker, or any future vegan candidate, have your staff call ahead to clarify that even egg whites aren’t vegan, because there may be some confusion on that front.)
3. Moms eating eggs are influencers, too.
Eating my mound of hash browns and chatting to Waveland patrons, I remembered a piece of wisdom from my days riding the viral content waves as a writer at BuzzFeed: If you can reach Midwestern moms, your piece is going viral.
An Iowa diner is a teeming hotbed of Midwestern moms.
And yet, as Stone told me, candidate visits have slowed this election season and the last, as candidates prefer to visit nearby Drake University with its smartphone-wielding youths. “They are reaching a whole lot bigger audience than just a few people in here,” Stone explained. “Although this is a good cross-section of people you’ll find from every walk of life. So it gives them a good platform.”
Not only could you score a flurry of Facebook posts from diner moms, but unlike on social media, people in a diner may actually want to hear what you have to say.
While I had assumed that most people might be irritated at becoming a background character in a political photo op, I left realizing that it’s actually much better to be bothered by a candidate at breakfast than to never be noticed by a politician at all. Stone told me that there is always great interest in a candidate visit to the Waveland — and patrons are always respectful.
In a very big country, it’s an uncommon thing to talk directly to a person who may become that country’s leader. It’s a thing diner-goers of most other states miss out on.
I left the Waveland thinking campaigning would be more enjoyable for candidates if they spent more time in diners.
Or maybe it was just the hash browns and French toast.