A few weeks ago, I was looking up waffles for dinner for some reason (maybe a formal justification of one of my regular habits?) and came across the term “waffle supper.” Like anything that uses the term “supper,” it sounded like a quaint and old-timey custom. Out of curiosity, I entered it into the Library of Congress’ newspaper search engine. It came back with nearly 2,000 hits from between 1890 and 1963 from all over the country, from Bridgeton, New Jersey, to Vashon Island, Washington, and Bemidji, Minnesota, to Key West, Florida. Wherever they lived, Americans wanted to gather in the evening with their people—be it churches or bridge clubs or Boy Scouts or the Japanese-American women’s group of Spokane, Washington—and eat waffles together in the name of community-building and fundraising.
What a beautiful custom! Naturally I needed to know more. How did it start? Why don’t we do it anymore? And can that be changed?
Further reading showed that waffles were often inextricable from their partner, chicken. Not an intuitive match, maybe, but one that has become one of America’s most beloved dishes. And whoever came up with it in the first place was a goddamned genius.
I would like to give that person credit, but, sadly, their name, and even their location, has been lost to history. NPR caught hell a few years back when a piece on its blog The Salt suggested that fried chicken and waffles was a Southern dish. (The piece also suggested that the Southern diet was to blame for the Southern “stroke belt,” which may have also offended a few people.) Southerners protested that they had never eaten such a thing. Angry New Yorkers claimed the dish had been invented in Harlem in the 1930s, and Los Angelenos countered that nobody had ever eaten real chicken and waffles before Roscoe’s opened in 1975.
NPR promptly got in touch with John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Food Alliance and, more crucially, the author of a book about fried chicken that mentions waffles a lot. “It’s a Southern dish,” Edge said, cautiously, “but a Southern dish once or twice removed from the South.” In other words, it’s a dish beloved by former Southerners like Dickie Wells, the jazz musician whose eponymous Harlem nightclub was one of the first places to serve chicken and waffles. (Though it seems Wells served up chicken and waffles for practical reasons: most of his customers came in the wee hours of the morning, and fried chicken and waffles split the difference between dinner and breakfast.) Edge had hoped to get some insight from Herb Hudson, the founder of Roscoe’s who had grown up in Harlem, but Hudson turned down several interview requests from Edge before an assistant coldly told the food writer to desist because the chicken-and-waffles mogul was too busy.
So, okay, maybe chicken and waffles was invented by Black cooks in the South and then came north with the Great Migration. But that doesn’t explain why there were so many chicken and waffle suppers in Pennsylvania in the 1890s, several decades before the Great Migration began in earnest. Or the adoration for the Warriner’s Tavern in Springfield, Massachusetts, whose chicken and waffles continued to inspire poetry decades after its chicken and waffles heyday in the late 1840s.
The answer, according to historian H.D. Miller, is because chicken and waffles isn’t just one dish, but three. Or, rather, it’s a whole genre of dishes. The Harlem- and LA-style chicken and waffles we know and love today is fried. But the Pennsylvania Dutch served their waffles with stewed chicken, and the Warriner’s chicken was broiled. Aha!
Waffles themselves are an old, old dish, dating in some form back to the Middle Ages, when they were called wafers. Thomas Jefferson gets the credit for introducing them to America because he brought some waffle irons back with him from France and he was famous, but food historian Stephen Schmidt found an account of a New York waffle supper from the 1740s, when Jefferson was still a babe in arms. Incidentally, this account calls the supper a “wafel frolic.” Does that not sound delightful?
The preparation of waffles in the days before stoves, when cooks had to work over open fires, was a major pain in the ass. This was also before the invention of baking powder, so yeast was used as a leavening agent, and the batter needed several hours to rise. Old-school waffle irons needed to be heated in the fire, and then temperature needed to be maintained to cook a good waffle. “When you make waffles and wafers on the open hearth it’s a two person job,” the food writer and plantation cooking interpreter Michael Twitty told Extra Crispy. “The irons are two long handles attached to two adjoined baking plates placed in the fire. You have your batter ready, take the irons out of the fire, butter them and pour the batter in and slam it shut. After one minute per side in the fire you have a waffle or wafer. Tedious isn’t even the word.”
It seems logical—to me, anyway—that waffles were eaten at supper, because making a waffle breakfast would have required cooks to start prepping in the middle of the night.
Of course, if you had enslaved people making the waffles for you, that wouldn’t have been a problem. Waffles featured prominently in the “Virginia breakfast” of the early 1800s, which food historian Adrian Miller, in his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story Of An American Cuisine, calls “the gold standard of plantation hospitality.” Miller describes it as a “combination of fried or baked meats with any sort of hot quick bread.... At these meals, fried chicken was a regular star, just as likely to be paired with a biscuit, cornbread, pancakes, or rolls as a it was with a waffle.”
Fried chicken was not the star of these meals by random chance (even though I think we can all agree that good fried chicken is a gift from the gods). Chickens, H.D. Miller writes, were the only animals that enslaved people were allowed to raise and sell. Therefore, they had a strong incentive to encourage the plantation owners to eat lots and lots of chicken. Some of these chicken farmers were so successful, they were able to purchase their freedom.
Not all plantation owners, contrary to stereotype, were Southerners. Some were Northern industrialists who decided to broaden their holdings by buying land in the South. And occasionally, they went back North for the summer and they would bring their cooks with them, and sometimes the cooks would self-emancipate or flat-out run away. David Shields, the food historian and author of Southern Provisions: The Creation And Revival Of A Cuisine, argues that these enslaved plantation cooks were among the best in the country, and Yankee restaurant owners were thrilled to have them. (They were pleased to have them after the Civil War, too, but many cooks went into business for themselves, including the waiter carriers, who sold chicken and waffles to railroad passengers.)
These included “Uncle Jerry” and “Aunt Phoebe” Warriner, owners of Warriner’s Tavern, the legendary Springfield chicken-and-waffles palace I mentioned earlier. The Warriners, writes H.D. Miller, were staunch abolitionists and the tavern was a stop on the Underground Railroad. At least two of their best cooks, Mary Sly and a pastry cook known to history only as Emily, were Black women who learned how to cook on Southern plantations. At Warriner’s, however, they served their chicken broiled. (Why? Miller doesn’t seem to know.) And, apparently, it was divine.
Up North, the chicken situation was a whole ’nother thing, at least before commercial chicken farms. Chickens were kept for their eggs and weren’t eaten until they were too old to lay. By then, of course, they were tough and scrawny old birds, and the best way to make a tough and scrawny old bird palatable is to stew it. Which is what the cooks of Pennsylvania Dutch country did when they prepared chicken to go with waffles. Sometimes they just used chicken gravy. They were so thrifty, chicken wasn’t even their first choice: initially they served waffles with catfish. Alas, catfish were only available in the summer, and by the late 1840s, tourists were coming out from Philadelphia all year round to eat at the famous waffle palaces.
Yes, waffle palaces. Just savor that idea for a moment.
“These eateries,” writes historian William Woys Weaver,
appealed to people of modest means who knew in advance what they would get for their money. But the festive atmosphere of the hotels (there was often a band playing popular tunes), the lack of pretension that otherwise categorized high-class restaurants and hotel dining rooms of that period, and the woodsy locations situated near scenic outlooks along the water also attracted the wealthy as a way to indulge in local color.... The typical menus for all these waffle palaces consisted of fried catfish with pepper hash, fried potatoes, fried chicken, beefsteaks, stewed catfish, stewed chicken, and of course waffles to accompany the stewed dish of your choice. Strong coffee came with the meal; waffles as a dessert, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, were extra.
Weaver isn’t sure how stewed fish and chicken came to be eaten with waffles—he suspects that it may have its origins in something called pot pudding, “a meaty pork-based pâté that was commonly melted in a skillet and poured hot over bread, over noodles, over potatoes, and yes, even over waffles.” But by the late 1800s, the dish had spread across Pennsylvania and beyond; a hotel on Oahu in Hawaii was serving up chicken and waffles in 1909. Home economists caught on and put recipes in their cookbooks; it was economical because gravy could be made of leftovers and the waffles could be made with baking powder instead of eggs.
Some organizers of waffle suppers got creative and served turkey. A 1935 ad for Aunt Jemima suggested Creole shrimp for “a Southern waffle supper” (along with tomato soup and cheese wafers). But mostly they served chicken and waffles. The stories about the waffle suppers in local newspapers very rarely specified how the chicken was prepared—the only one I could find was creamed, which I suppose makes sense if you’re making chicken for a lot of people—but they always emphasized that a good time was had by all. And, really, what else matters?
It remains unclear to me why chicken and waffle suppers died out. Maybe they vanished for the same reason as oyster suppers and beefsteak suppers and pancake suppers and all the other community suppers that turned up in the same local news columns as the waffle suppers: it’s so much easier to order catering.
But now that I know—and now that I know that the chicken that comes with waffles doesn’t have to be fried—I may whip up some chicken and waffles Pennsylvania Dutch style. And I will eat them and pretend I’m in a hotel on the Susquehanna River in the fall, gazing out at the changing leaves.