Waffles in America
In 1620 Dutch Pilgrims brought waffle recipes and irons from the Netherlands to America. The earliest devices had a hinge and were made of clunky wrought iron, often etched with swirls, initials, or a grid for decoration. In New Amsterdam, now New York City, Dutch immigrants customarily ate wafels (Dutch for waffles) in the afternoon with chocolate and tea. In 1784 Thomas Jefferson was sent to Paris by the Congress of the Confederation to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as Minister of Plenipotentiary for negotiating several Treaties of Amity and Commerce. Less than a year later he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as Minister to France. Thomas Jefferson left Paris during the French Revolution in 1789 bringing back many novelties and curiosities, amongst which were four waffle irons as a souvenir. He is, therefore, known as the most famous waffle-iron owner in history though to what extent he popularized the dish remains unclear.
Waffles became increasingly popular during the 18th century. These waffle-eating parties were also sometimes known as “waffle frolics.” During these parties, hosts would serve a variety of dishes, with waffles as the crowning glory of the meal. The best and lightest waffles were made to rise with yeast and cooked over an open fire in long-handled waffle irons. Making the dough was a laborious process usually started the night before the “waffle frolic“. The heavy irons were not just expensive specialty items, they were difficult to handle without burning yourself and getting them to produce a perfect golden-brown waffle was a matter for the highly experienced.
Chicken and Waffles
For some people this might be the oddest combination, for others it belongs as much together as burger and fries. Despite one’s own personal opinion about this dish, it is undeniably a platter with plenty of historical background. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a festive food not often prepared at home. Three different versions exist:
- Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles
- Stewed Chicken and Waffles
- Broiled Chicken and Waffles
Why were waffles seen as a culinary high point in the 19th century?
- They were difficult and time-consuming to make and
- in the North chickens were expensive and considered a luxury good (as opposed to the South where chicken was the one type of livestock that slaves were allowed to own).
Thus, in the North, chicken and waffles, especially waffles, were mainly served in taverns and hotels. The dish was either broiled as a spring chicken, i.e. the young males culled from the flock in late spring or the old hens stewed after they had ceased laying. The Pilgrims took these old birds and slowly simmered them, pulling or shredding the tenderized meat and topping it off by a cream or butter sauce. This laid the basis for the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch Chicken and Waffles.
Reputations grew and hostelries became famous for their Chicken and Waffles. The best example is Uncle Jerry´s Tavern in Springfield, Massachusetts, run by “Uncle Jerry” and “Aunt Phoebe”.
What or Who made this dish so delicious that people even decades later would dream about it?
Though kitchen personnel was abundant, there was a lack of knowledgeable and experienced cooks, especially in the North. The preparation of such dishes was best entrusted by “first-class American housewives,” or “a good cook”. Like many people in Springfield, Uncle Jerry and Aunt Phoebe were staunch abolitionists and their tavern was a major station on the “Underground Railroad”. This meant that many African-Americans, of which some were culinary chefs or well trained in the kitchen, passed through their tavern. It is important to appreciate that African-American cooks were at the top of any Southern household’s slave hierarchy and could easily compete with the very best. In fact, a good cook was worth his weight in gold since entertaining and food were extremely important to Southerners. Aunt Phoebe’s kitchen helpers were Lydia Bates, trained to be a “first-class American housewife”, and two African-American women, Mary Sly, responsible for chicken and waffles, and “Emily” the pastry chef. The combination of the four made for the perfect Chicken and Waffles experience and ensured the tavern’s popularity.
By the 1840s everybody knew about Broiled Chicken and Waffles but what about the famous Fried Chicken and Waffles?
By the early 1800s, south of the “Mason-Dixon Line” a “Virginia Breakfast,” featuring a selection of fried or baked meats, was the gold standard of plantation hospitality. At these meals, fried chicken was a regular star, just as likely to be paired with a biscuit, cornbread, pancakes or rolls as it was with a waffle. The guests themselves combined them in accordance with each one’s individual taste.
Given its continued popularity, it is thus impossible to provide an exact date when fried chicken and waffles have been combined specifically as a dish in its own right.
Nowadays, each region in the country has its own versions which could be either sweet or savory. Dutch Pennsylvanians top them with chicken and gravy, southern cooks like fried chicken and powdered sugar, and Puritans call for nothing more than maple syrup.
National Waffle Day in America falls on August 24th and commemorates the first patented waffle-iron dating back to 1869 and the popularity of waffles.