06 May The History of Chicken and Waffles
We Get To The True History of Chicken and Waffles and how it became so popular!
East coast? West? Or is it the South? The origin of chicken and waffles is a long and winding road with as many crossroads as the waffle itself. But here’s what everyone who has tried chicken and waffles knows. First, the combination is delicious. Second, it is impossible to eat chicken and waffles without a smile on your face. Yes, they’re that good. Chicken and waffles has everything you could want in a dish: it’s crunchy, salty, sweet, and savory.
Chicken and waffles are like bacon and eggs, not so much an individual dish as an imaginative fusion of two different things indelibly joined in a celebrated coupling.
As with bacon and eggs a single origin story for this merging is a difficult task. Historically, chicken and waffles could be three different dishes: creamed chicken and waffles, broiled chicken and waffles, and fried chicken and waffles. Each of which has had its moment in the sun.
Dishes and recipes tend to evolve over time and the origin of chicken and waffles is no different. It is also a story that is not without some controversy.
After years of indulging in this potent culinary duo and picking up some “history” along the way, I decided to explore this origin story to see if I could gain a better understanding of how this dish had attained its current popularity. Separating the wheat from the chaff proved challenging, yet rewarding. History, culture, traditions, there’s a lot to this story. But as in every food origin story, there are many versions each with its supporters and detractors. I have tried to go beyond the stereotypes always reflecting that this winding journey resulted in a sublime taste that has given infinite pleasure to many.
So how did this offbeat combination of breakfast and dinner come about?
The Story of Waffles in America
Let’s start with the waffle. Waffles are an ancient food dating back to the rustic hotcakes cooked on stones in the Neolithic Age (6000BC to 2000 BC).
In ancient Greece, cooks made flat cakes called obleios (wafers) between two hot metal plates. They were primarily savory in nature, flavored with cheese and herbs.
In medieval Europe, Communion wafers (Holy Eucharist) were commonly produced by nuns; they were not only used for the celebration of Mass but also as a “fasting food” since they contained no animal products (eggs, lard, milk, butter). However, members of the aristocracy had the financial means to augment the texture and taste of these wafers with the addition of costly flavorings such as sugar, spices, and orange blossom water. By the 13th century, these wafers were a regular component of imperial cuisine.
In the 13th century someone had the ingenious idea of cooking wafers on an iron cast of a pattern that mimicked a honeycomb which remains the waffle design today. And guess what the Dutch word for honeycomb is….“wafel.” And the word from the Old French, “wafla,” meaning “a piece of honeybee hive,” became the French word for waffle. So the waffle was born. But how did it get across the Atlantic?
In Germany, it was common to serve meat with something to soak it up. When German immigrants came to America (the Pennsylvania Dutch) home cooks made waffles and then topped them with pulled chicken and gravy.
The Pilgrims briefly stopped in Holland prior to coming to America where they discovered the waffle. Upon settling in New England they introduced the waffle and by the 19th century broiled chicken and waffles was a popular dish throughout the area.
Prior to becoming the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was our foreign minister to France. During his five years in that position, Jefferson wined and dined and enjoyed the many culinary delights of France. He purchased many kitchen innovations including a pasta machine, ice cream molds, a coffee urn, and (most importantly) a waffle iron. Actually, he brought four waffle irons home. Waffles became a fashionable food alternative to flapjacks and Jefferson was known to host waffle parties.
What about the Fried Chicken?
Fried chicken shows up in its earliest form as a fricassee – chicken pieces braised in a sauce. Fricassee was popular in the Mediterranean basin during the medieval period. To make fricassee required an iron pot, meat, and fat, all of which were readily available during the time period. By the 1300s, fricassee, a combination of the French words for “fry” and “break” began appearing in French culinary writings. Early cookbooks featured recipes for fricassee that could be made with any type of meat, not just chicken. By the 17th century, recipes more frequently called for chicken. First Lady Martha Washington had two recipes for fricassee in her recipe collection, one of which required a half pound butter to fry two cut up chickens.
A popular colonial cookbook, The Art of Cookery, by Hannah Glass features a recipe of chicken pieces coated first with egg, then spiced breadcrumbs, then fried in butter. Once the chicken was done frying to a crispy brown, it was saturated with a copious amount of gravy, mushrooms and pickles.
Now things get a little complicated. From the 18th century, conventional wisdom has designated the American South as fried chicken’s native home. Southerners have made it a mainstay of their regional cuisine claiming that the dish was developed by the African slaves who were doing most of the cooking in Southern kitchens.
Some food historians linked this expertise to West Africa where for several centuries prior to European contact, local populations ate chicken and deep fried their food. However, West Africans didn’t make fried chicken the same way that many Southerners traditionally did.
It was more like a fricassee with the chicken lightly fried and then braised a much longer time in a seasoned sauce. Since West African culinary traditions were not well known, many jumped to an inaccurate determination.
As noted food writer John Mariani wrote in The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, “Almost every country has its own version of fried chicken, from Vietnam’s Ga Xao to Italy’s pollo fritto and Austria’s Weiner Backhendl.”
Some food historians point to Scotland. The Scots, who came to America in the 1700s, had a tradition of deep frying chickens as far back as the Middle Ages. They were known for frying their foods in boiling fat and often called this food fritters.
Some of those Scottish immigrants and other Europeans migrated to the South prior to the height of the Transatlantic slave trade in the 1800s. Many of these Scottish immigrants would eventually buy plantations, own slaves, and introduce the frying of chicken.
Thus a likely scenario is that at some point between the 17th and 19th centuries, enslaved Africans began cooking fried chicken based on recipes provided by Scottish slaveholders. In time, these cooks embraced this method and made it part of their own cooking tradition. With years of honed experience as well as expertise in seasoning and frying, these African cooks caused fried chicken to lose its Scottish character and it became classic “Southern.”
Popularity of Chicken in the South
Outside of the South, young chickens (best for frying) were an unusual and costly treat. Below the Mason Dixon Line, however, it was a staple on breakfast tables (fried or broiled) and served with a variety of breads and biscuits including waffles. The reason chicken was more plentiful in the South was that chicken long held a special place in Southern slave society, principally because they were the one type of livestock that slaves were allowed to own for themselves. Chicken became a key commodity in the lively commerce of eating, trading, and selling carried out by slaves and free blacks.
Slaves also grew a range of vegetables in their garden allocations and sold some of the produce to their owners and others, although nothing was ever as remunerative as poultry.
Chickens were so lucrative that enterprising slaves might even be able to buy their own freedom with the earnings from their coops. In his 2014 book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World, author Andrew Lawler notes that slaves “had a strong economic motive to encourage their masters to eat more chicken.”
Chicken and Waffles – Gaining Momentum
The big, nationwide boom in fried chicken and waffles began in the 1870s mirroring the rise of a national railroad system that mitigated the strain of long distance travel. Before the Civil War, travel to the South largely meant taking a steamer down the Atlantic Coast to Charleston or Savannah, or down the Ohio River to the Cumberland River or Mississippi River and then inland from one of the ports, sometimes by local rail but mostly by stagecoach. Trips were slow and taxing and involved many hardships.
As long distance travel became less burdensome after the Civil War, working today in what is called the service industry was one of the most rapid ways for freed slaves and their descendants to earn a living. George Pullman, of the Pullman car, solely hired ex-slaves as sleep car attendants, porters, and others, These men earned middle class wages by concentrating on top-flight customer service. At rail stations throughout the South, freed slaves earned a living by selling prepared food to the passengers.
The small town of Gordonsville, Virginia, was a major stop on two post Civil War railroad lines. Back then they did not have dining cars. When tired train passengers arrived in Gordonsville, black women rushed to offer a combination of foods including fried chicken. Because fried chicken traveled well before refrigeration, passengers would frequently buy the food from African American cooks through open train windows.
Resort hotels throughout the country hired freed slaves and their children to staff their kitchens and entrepreneurial hoteliers began to offer fried chicken dinners and fried chicken and waffle lunches as an attraction. By the turn of the century, the fandom of fried chicken and waffles had spread to distant parts of the country, to places like New York City, Western Massachusetts, and even Hawaii.
The Great Migration
Hurricanes in 1915 and 1916 all but wiped out crops in the South and put thousands of African American sharecroppers out of work. During and after WWI, immigration from Europe to the United States also decreased. Those two developments co-aligned and were the impetus for black Americans to migrate to the North where the economy was thriving and the promise of an improved standard of living gave hope for the future.
This migration drew thousands to the Harlem section of Manhattan. In this mix was a staggering gathering of inventiveness. Poets, artists, and musicians effortlessly blended with unskilled workers and the middle classes because they all shared a history of slavery, then emancipation, then repression.
You might ask how this is pertinent to the story of chicken and waffles? The music environment was a focal point in Harlem. Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway are just a small sampling of the musical artists that performed in Harlem. When the entertainers were done for the night, they needed a place to eat. By midnight, most restaurants were closed for dinner service….except for a spot named Wells Supper Club (opened in 1938). Wells offered dinner long after other restaurants had turned out the lights. It soon became a late night hotspot for jazz musicians and other performers who would stop by late at night after their various gigs. The performers arriving too late for dinner but too early for breakfast enjoyed the scrumptious concurrence of fried chicken and waffles.
Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Nat King Cole (who held his wedding reception there) have more in common than being musical legends. They all grabbed a late night bite at Wells Supper Club. The original Wells closed in 1982 but two iconic places in Harlem are continuing the legacy (more about that later).
In 1976, a Harlem native named Herb Hudson opened a Los Angeles restaurant devoted solely to this delectable pairing: Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Hudson’s Motown relationships helped to catapult the restaurant making it a happening landing place for music industry professionals and performers over the years.
Roscoe’s has become part of the fabric of the Hollywood food scene. Roscoe’s is so famous, that President Barack Obama made an unscheduled stop there in 2011. Roscoe’s is no longer a one trick pony and its menu tempts diners with other Southern-oriented dishes. It has also expanded to other locations.
A wide variety of celebrities patronize Roscoe’s, from the late Larry King to Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg. In fact, Snoop Dogg came to the restaurant’s rescue financially when it was forced into bankruptcy in a wage discrimination case.
How bad do customers want their chicken and waffles from Roscoe’s? This past February (2021) a “patron” was refused service for not wearing a mask. So what did he do? He promptly pulled a gun, walked into the kitchen, and had his bag filled with chicken and waffles. He didn’t take any cash, or injure anyone but he did stop for syrup on the way out. I guess when you need your chicken and waffles fix, you’ll do anything.
East Coast. West Coast. Or is it the South? That was my original question but as I researched I realized that the history of chicken and waffles is complex, tangled, and possibly unanswerable….just like all history. But I think I am on firm ground when stating that chicken and waffles is a uniquely American story.
My take? Chicken and waffles is a combination of the effort and skill of generations of individuals but one that was brought to a glorious symphony by enslaved Southern cooks. These cooks travailed in kitchens and fashioned classics that, in most cases, they would never be allowed to eat.
So, South, yes! It was popularized in the East and West, though until the early 1990s it remained more of a “cult” dish. Then it took off and its popularity has never waned since. The staple elements came from across the Atlantic, brought here on the decks of ships, and horrifically, from cargo holds, by people with radically divergent destinies. So it is foolhardy to think there is a single narrative in play.
How did Chicken and Waffles Enter the Mainstream?
Taste, of course. There is no denying that it plays a soul-stirring harmony.
Versatile. Chicken and waffles can be eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a great late night food after too many drinks. That’s 24 hours of possibilities.
Easy to customize. Everyone fries their chicken differently, and the waffle can have different flavors. Maple syrup is traditional, but I’ve had renditions adding butter and bourbon to the syrup.
Now that you have the history, I’ve assembled a personal list of my favorite versions (in no particular order) of this transcendent, mouthwatering dish. We’re going cross country on this one. And, yes, you can make your own rendition. But be forewarned, classic fried chicken and waffles aren’t super easy to make, despite what all the recipes proclaim. This combination takes time and technique.
Ever need a chicken and waffles fix at 1am? This place has you covered. This 24 hour restaurant has been wowing locals and out of towners since 1998. They have several sweet and savory combos. I especially like their succulent chicken wings on top of a fluffy buttermilk pancake.
113 West 116th Street
New York, NY
Red Rooster Harlem
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson offers two versions of chicken and waffles. I prefer the traditional, which is a Nashville style hot chicken and waffles covered in spiced maple syrup and seasoned with his savoury hot rub blend.
Red Rooster Harlem
310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY
When in New York, a stop at Sylvia’s is a must (since 1962). Grab a seat and indulge in an oversized piece of deeply fried chicken that will be overmatched by an even more oversized waffle beneath it and a heaping scoop of butter on top. Just focus on the bliss.
328 Malcolm X Boulevard
New York, NY
Temple Bar American Bistro
Classic fried chicken goes on a (get this) bacon infused waffle topped by house made szechuan maple butter. Might sound a little extreme for chicken and waffles, but once I tasted this delectable, I was hooked.
Temple Bar American Bistro
1688 Massachusetts Avenue
Birch & Barley
Perfectly fried chicken thigh and a classic Belgian waffle, scattered with pecans and drizzled in maple syrup. They just take chicken and waffles to another level. The chicken is juicy and perfectly seasoned.
Birch & Barley
1337 14th Street NW
Early Bird Diner
It’s all about the details. The chicken is double breaded with a combination of ground pecans and flour, so it takes on a nutty flavor. The waffle butter is infused with a little cinnamon and the honey mustard on the side (maple syrup available) makes me hum, “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.”
Early Bird Diner
1644 Savannah Highway
Beasley’s Chicken & Honey
Tradition goes a long way here. Take a brined, buttermilk, pressure-fried chicken with a thick Belgian waffle and local honey. This time I’ll let Bing Cosby sing, “Nothing Could be finer…”
Beasley’s Chicken & Honey
237 S. Wilmington Street
They take their chicken seriously in Tennessee. Chicken in five degrees of heat (you choose) on a waffle, sweetened with Log Cabin syrup and clover honey (just a bit). Savory chicken, buttery waffle, sweet sugar. Yes, I know what you are thinking, it might be hard for you to get to Nashville. But don’t fret, they also have spots in Atlanta, Memphis, Las Vegas, and Birmingham.
112 19th Avenue S
Yardbird Southern Table & Bar
Chicken brined for 27 hours then fried in a cayenne spiced flour is the highlight. Classic waffle. I like to splash a little Tabasco after drizzling the maple syrup. Also has additional locations.
Yardbird Southern Table & Bar
1600 Lenox Avenue
Miami Beach, FL
Retro style diner. Chicken brined 24 hours in buttermilk and seasonings. Fried to order with Belgian style waffles (made to order) alongside a pool of red eye gravy made with coffee. Bring your appetite, as there is a mess of chicken. Now I know why Peyton Manning finished his career in the Mile High City.
523 East 17th Avenue
Serving signature fried chicken and waffles since 1975. These are old school traditional waffles. The chicken is skillet fried to order and the waffles are extra crispy. Multiple locations. Iconic, historical establishment. Put it on your bucket list.
Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles
106 West Manchester Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA
Remember there is never a bad time to have chicken and waffles. It is the 24/7 dish of America. As the famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”