Happy National Waffle Day, waffle history buffs
“Always have your irons perfectly hot and well greased” is all Abby Fisher recommends to guarantee good waffles. The technique hasn’t much changed in the 135 years since Ms. Fisher became the first African American to publish a cookbook of Southern dishes. It didn’t change much for a few centuries before that, either. The history of waffle irons starts with the ancient Greeks, who had their obleios. While they were made by pouring batter-like stuff between heated iron plates, obleios wouldn’t necessarily be recognizable as waffles today. The Middle Ages introduced waffles with weird shapes imprinted upon them to the world, and American ingenuity brought waffles to every countertop touched by weekend breakfast obsession or wedding registry superfluence.
As Americans, we are all familiar with the story of Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, NY. Oh—you’re not? If you couldn’t tell from that curled mustache of a name, Mr. Swarthout made his mark on the world in the mid-19th century with one small step that helped us leap into modern breakfast by patenting the the first stovetop waffle iron in the U.S. His patent was registered on August 24, 1869. Today is August 24. Whoa.
Swarthout’s innovation wasn’t a radical one. What he dreamt up allowed the cook to make solid waffles on the increasingly common American stovetop without risk of burns. Gone were the blistered hands and broken dreams that once came with waffle making. Dimpled, golden, and consistent waffles were now within reach for more people than ever before.
Then, in the early 20th century, “General Electric and Westinghouse both produced prototypes around 1900 which looked basically like the common cast iron stove top models but with primitive [electric] heating elements one attached to them,” said William George, author of Antique Electric Waffle Irons 1900-1960. “It was very difficult with the technology available at that time to make a heating element capable of generating the large amount of thermal energy required to bake a waffle.” But R&D departments tinkered on, and the Simplex Electric Company of Massachusetts produced the first commercially successful electrified iron around 1905.
Technology improved modestly after that, but as Mr. George points out, “waffle irons are rather simple devices so what's to improve in them?” A confluence of circumstances—technological, economic, cultural—created what for him was the golden age of waffle makers from the 1920s through 1950s. Plastics weren’t yet cheap or common, so powerhouses like Toastmaster and Sunbeam made their Pixar-ready beauties from more durable parts. A number of smaller manufacturers produced irons before consolidation put waffle maker making in the hands of a few companies. Put this in the context of the booming postwar demand for consumer products, and you’ve got yourself a waffle maker golden age. Soon enough, plastic parts and the overhyped Teflon revolution (that really wasn’t, says George, who finds DuPont’s accidental discovery far from nonstick) would make it more economical to simply dispose of makers instead of repairing them, and very quickly the age of electric appliances as family heirlooms faded.
Cast iron waffle makers had a similar arc, transposed on an earlier age. Cast iron was made throughout America’s industrial centers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Griswold, the most highly regarded casters of iron, went out of business in 1957. Lodge—which you will find in my kitchen but gets you an eye roll from die hards—soldiers on but no longer demands the respect once garnered in its heydey.
Mary Theisen, who restores and sells cast iron as The Pan Handler and has a special expertise in Griswold products, says, “I like to think that I'm restoring and putting back into use pieces of American history. So to me, it's not just a pan, it's not just any pan, it's something that could have been around for over a hundred years. I like knowing that I'm using a piece that is not going to be used, abused, and then thrown into a landfill.” Cast iron is also a “greener” alternative given its longevity, and sidesteps any health risks that nonstick coatings might have. “It's got health benefits with the leaching of iron. It's not toxic chemicals leaching.” Waffle irons, she says, enjoy particular rushes around certain holidays, such as Griswold’s “star heart” maker that forges heart-shaped waffles. I forget which holiday they are popular around. I think Presidents’ Day?
Unlike electric irons, technology played less of a role in cast iron waffle makers, given that any two heavy metal plates subjected to Ms. Fisher’s advice are going to give you a solid waffle. So while specialty irons (one emblazoned with Buster Brown is the most valuable Thiesen has sold) and the unmatched craftsmanship of the cast iron heroes like Griswold and Wagner are major attractions, specific design elements of the cast iron makers tend to be less fussed over than in their electric counterparts.
When it comes to the professionals, they are all about results. For John Seymour of Brooklyn’s Sweet Chick, a restaurant defined by its imaginative use of waffles, waffle texture is paramount. “So when it comes to actual waffle machines, what I'm looking for is a machine that's going to be able to get really, really hot. We settled on a Star waffle maker. It's given our signature waffles exactly what it needed. For us, it's the perfect waffle."
Waffle maker fetishism, it appears, starts at home and then stays there. The Pan Handler, when she makes waffles at home, uses a Griswold #8 New American waffle iron. William George, on the other hand, considers “the Art Deco styled Toastmaster Model 2D1 waffle iron made from 1935-39 the absolute zenith in waffle iron technology… these models are a pleasure to use and are my favorites.”
At the heart of these advances in waffle maker tech is our ever shifting relationship with the waffles themselves. World’s fairs introduced Americans to new waffle styles and ways of eating them. Eggo gave them mass market ubiquity and yoked them even more closely to the sugar-drenched strategy for waffle consumption that has dominated American breakfasts for decades. We’ve paired them with fried chicken. We’ve punched elderly men in the face so we could have all them for ourselves. We’ve made all sorts of abominations in the waffle maker. And yet for all that’s different, the waffle hasn’t changed much since before the Renaissance, and the basic principle for their makers remains the same: Stick two pieces of iron together, pour batter, apply heat. The details of how this is achieved are secondary. It’s like Ms. Fisher said. Keep the heat perfect and the irons greased.