Give credit where it's due
“Chicken and waffles is a Harlem thing. The South didn’t have anything to do with this invention.” That’s been my go-to sermon for people inquiring about the combo. To back that up, I ordered a pecan waffle and the sassy, blonde waitress, holding the oversized greasy yellow and black menu with a gazillion options asked, "Anything else?" Since I was at a Waffle House in East Point, Georgia, I asked for an order of wings and she replied, "No fried chicken here, hon." Despite that, it seems my claims turn out to have been alternative facts. Though the iconic around-the-clock breakfast spot doesn’t serve chicken and waffles (turns out there’s no deep fryer on premises), the dish is indeed a Southern invention.
Food scholars have plenty of origin theories about chicken and waffles. Many of them declare that a 1930s Harlem restaurant named Wells Supper Club came up with the notion of serving crispy thighs alongside deep-pocketed batter, or that the practice started with Pennsylvania Dutch home cooks of the 1600s. My conclusion is that it began with enslaved Africans mixing rice flour batter and cooking it to create golden-edged waffles, dabbing on spoonfuls of blackberry preserves (a la iconic Southern chef and author Edna Lewis), and frying chicken—taking simple victuals to new heights.
In his book As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine, food historian William Woys Weaver describes the appearance of the Dutch settlers’ bird as "pâté" like. He wrote, "It is a dish that comes to the table in many varied forms, chicken is a latecomer to the culinary story, because in the early nineteenth century—and perhaps even before that—other creatures were stewed and poured over waffles."
Soul food scholar Adrian Miller wrote in his James Beard award-winning Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, "German settlers made chicken and waffles smothered in gravy a Sunday dinner dish during much of the nineteenth century. By the early 1800s, a ‘Virginia Breakfast,’ featuring a combination of fried or baked meats with any sort of hot quick bread, was the gold standard of plantation hospitality."
Chicken—a currently on-trend protein—has deep roots on the Black community’s feasting table. After the Civil War, African-American “waiter carriers” sold vats of homemade fried chicken and biscuits to train passengers from railway platforms in Gordonsville, Virginia. In big house kitchens, enslaved cooks dry-brined yard birds to drop in full skillets of lard and devour with a side of carbs. Slave narratives from the Federal Writers Projects of Workers Progress Administration note “roasting, boiling, and frying chicken” as most common cooking methods.
As for the waffle component, chef Paul Fehribach described the technique perfectly in The Big Jones Cookbook: “Every well-equipped antebellum kitchen would have a wafer iron or two, in those days, wafers tended toward the thinner and crisper side.”
I also asked food writer and plantation cooking interpreter, Michael Twitty to describe his experience cooking wafers and waffles old-school style. Twitty noted the technical skills involved in lubing the utensil and keeping the metal piping hot: “When you make waffles and wafers on the open hearth it's a two person job. 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.”
As we moved into new centuries, modern stoves changed the wafer game. Individuals no longer needed assistance making the “gloried wafer”—just an electric outlet. The design of irons improved; American households began to see larger patterns for batter and the appliance became a countertop staple.
For sure, Joseph Wells, founder of Wells Supper Club and Herb Hudson of Roscoe’s—the Long Beach-based soul food chain launched in 1975—pushed chicken and waffles into the culinary lexicon, and this culturally significant fare is mentioned in Faith Ringgold’s Harlem Renaissance Party and Brooklyn born rapper Biggie Small’s Going Back to Cali. After the 1996 Olympics, homegrown Atlanta joint, Gladys Knight's Signature Chicken and Waffles propelled the craze to another plane. In 2011, IHOP introduced the masses to the sweet bird and fluffy carb combo but Black Southern cooks had long perfected the combination.
This mighty knowledge nugget changes my Harlem didn’t birth chicken and waffle speech, and I must leave behind my “American great migration folks” ownership conversation. We all must tell a fresh story—a tale inclusive of the forgotten faces of the past, the collective that took American food higher.