Waffles appeared during the Middle Ages, when bakeries began making communion wafers to compete with monasteries. The waffle was developed using the same method that was used to make the communion wafers, by baking a thin cake between two metal plates. Waffles quickly became a popular street food, given they could easily be made with flour and water. More exclusive versions for the wealthy would add honey or eggs. Waffle irons were engraved with various designs, from coats of arms to the plain honeycomb pattern we recognize today.
The Pilgrims are responsible for bringing waffles to America in 1620 after discovering them during their brief stop in Holland. Dutch immigrants popularized the dish in New Amsterdam, before it became New York. Thomas Jefferson reportedly started a mini American waffle craze during the 1790s when he returned from France with a goose-handled waffle iron. At the 1964 World’s Fair, Americans were introduced to the Belgian waffle, made fluffy with the help of yeast and egg whites. Once electric waffle irons replaced those inconvenient metal plates, waffles officially became an American favorite.
The earliest American chicken and waffle combination appears in Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1600’s, when home cooks made waffles and topped them with pulled chicken and gravy. A different, decidedly soul food-inspired approach to the pairing worked its way into popular culture much later with the opening of Wells Supper Club in Harlem, New York. The restaurant, known simply as “Wells” to regulars, opened in 1938. Wells became a late night hotspot for jazz musicians, who would stop by late at night after their various gigs. The musicians, arriving too late for dinner but too early for breakfast, enjoyed the appetizing compromise of fried chicken and waffles. Before long, Wells was frequented by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole (who held his wedding reception there).
Wells managed to inspire a nationwide trend. In 1976, a Harlem native named Herb Hudson opened a Los Angeles restaurant dedicated exclusively to the pairing: Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Hudson’s Motown connections helped to launch the restaurant, making it a popular destination for music industry professionals and performers in the Los Angeles area. Over the years, the restaurant has become an established part of the Hollywood food landscape. Roscoe’s is so well known, in fact, that President Obama took time out of his busy schedule in 2011 to make an unscheduled stop there. In case you’re curious, he ordered the “Country Boy,” Number 9– three wings with choice of waffle, potato salad or French fries. Here’s hoping he chose the waffle.
Gladys Knight, a patron of the original Wells, started her own chain with gospel singer Ron Winan in 1996—Gladys and Ron’s Chicken and Waffles. Other soul food restaurants feature chicken and waffles on the menu, including Lo-Lo’s in Arizona and Lucky J’s in Texas. Thomas Keller’s famed restaurant Ad Hoc in Napa has been known, on occasion, to serve lemony fried chicken with crispy and delicate waffles. And in Harlem, Melba’s Restaurant serves up eggnog waffles with strawberry butter and buttermilk fried chicken. While it may sound strange, Melba’s combination is so tasty that she beat out celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a chicken and waffles “Throwdown” on Food Network.
So what is it about chicken and waffles that has caused such a stir over the years? Is it that crispy seasoned chicken skin? The fluffy waffles enveloped in melting pads of butter? That warm, sweet syrup drizzled over the top? Or is it that first bite, when all of the ingredients come together in perfect, soul-stirring harmony?
While you ponder that, I’m headed to the kitchen to whip up a homemade batch of chicken and waffles.
Edge, John T. (2004). Fried Chicken: An American Story. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY.
Kanter, Larry (1997). Serving Up Chicken and Waffles to Hungry Town. Los Angeles Business Journal, Sept. 22-28.
Smith, Andrew F. (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.
Stephey, M.J. (2009). A Brief History of Waffles. Time Magazine Online
You can uncover more fascinating food history on Tori’s website: The History Kitchen.
Meet the Author
Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of ToriAvey.com. She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.