And how Big Belgian took over the waffle game
On cold Saturday mornings in Cleveland, Ohio, my mom used to make us waffles. Her waffles were thin and square, about the thickness of a Paula Abdul cassette tape. We smothered them with margarine and maple syrup, leaving a sticky, batter-strewn counter in our wake.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, thin waffles like these—let’s call them standard “American waffles”—ruled the home and the restaurant menu. You’ve probably eaten lots of them; they have a small, shallow grid and hold only a modicum of syrup in their junior varsity-sized pockets. Think Eggo, but bigger.
But if you’ve been paying attention to breakfast in the past 15 years or so, you might have noticed something: waffles have gotten thicker and thicker. Stockier waffles with deep syrup pockets, often topped with fruit or Nutella or mountains of whipped cream, are the new norm. They’re what men with beards are handing you out of food truck windows, and what servers are plopping down in front of you at brunch. Today, in most diners and restaurants and those omnipresent hipster comfort-food places, if you order a waffle, it’s gonna be Belgian.
I didn’t realize how ubiquitous Big Belgian had become until I decided recently to buy a waffle maker of my own. Since moving across the country by myself, I’ve eased into the lonely luxury of cooking pancakes on weekend mornings. When morning after morning of dense pancake breakfasts started getting old—trust me, it can!—I wanted to up my game with something that wouldn’t leave such an “I swallowed a flour bowling ball” feeling in my stomach.
Hoping to buy a thin waffle maker like my mom used to have, I scoured websites. I strolled the appliance aisle at Target and Bed Bath and Beyond, searching for an apparatus to grant me the pleasure of an H.W. Bush-era breakfast. But it seems like the only waffle maker you can buy these days is Belgian. Belgian! Why? I needed to find out.
Waffles, like pancakes, have been in America for centuries. Thomas Jefferson allegedly brought the waffle iron to America from France. In the early 20th century, waffles were thin and flat, a wartime breakfast that spared frills. Skinny waffles were successfully mass-marketed to the public when three California brothers debuted frozen Eggo waffles in the ’50s. (Kellogg’s purchased the company in 1968.)
But even during the peak of Eggo popularity, a taste for a thicker waffle was percolating in America. Belgium natives Maurice and Rose Vermersch first served up thick, chewy waffles, known originally as Brussels waffles, at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. The waffles were such a hit at the fair that the Vermerschs simplified the name, deciding that the majority of Americans wouldn’t know where Brussels was. And from there, a craze was born.
The “American” waffle and the Belgian waffle share the same basic recipe: flour, milk, eggs, and salt. American waffles are leavened with baking powder, whereas a true Belgian waffle is leavened with yeast. These days, a Belgian waffle you get at a restaurant is probably also leavened with baking powder, not yeast, making the difference more about form than substance.
The two waffles also look very different. Belgian waffles are baked in larger irons with bigger hinges, creating deeper holes and a thicker, airier shape. In other words, you could pick up a Belgian waffle and throw it like a frisbee.
Since the ’60s, America has lived under the tyranny of Big Belgian. So what happened to our taste for the thin waffle of yore?
Marketing might be one important factor. The “Belgian” waffle sounds urbane and European, even if it’s being slung out of an industrial waffle press at a Nebraska diner by a guy named Gary.
Ken Albala, director of food studies at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, also points to the Belgian waffle’s increased fluffiness as part of its appeal.
“The Belgian waffle has more air in it,” he says. “People then get the impression there’s more food there because there’s more surface area.”
Structure, too, could be one reason Belgian waffles, which are standardly 1.5 inches thick, have become de rigeur in America. The airy interior creates an fluffy base, and the sturdy, crisp outside can support the weight of toppings ranging from traditional sliced strawberries to artisanal ones like pulled pork with coleslaw.
Structured Belgian waffles lend themselves well to two major mid-2010s food trends. First of all, social media and Facebook food porn have sent us all on a search for the droolworthy shareable food photo. You can’t deny that the Belgian waffle serves up nicely on Instagram, all beveled edges and buttery scaffolding. A picture of a thin waffle drowning in a puddle of syrup doesn’t have nearly the same allure.
Second, the rise of snackwave has fueled online nostalgia for the junk food of our youth. Waffles are a paradigmatic comfort food, combining sentimental longing for Mom’s breakfast with the taste bud hug of stomach-warming butter and syrup. The Belgian trend has liberated waffles from just being a breakfast treat, and all-day waffles fit nicely into society’s current obsession with snacks. Now, you can get a thick Liège waffle from the Wafels & Dinges food truck in New York at various times of day. Walk into any hipster restaurant in a big city, and you’ll find a variation of chicken and waffles, co-opted from a rich tradition of soul food. And in the blog and now book Will It Waffle?, author Daniel Shumski experiments with smashing all kinds of cuisine—mac and cheese, meatballs, falafel—between a Belgian waffle iron’s unforgiving plates.
But not every restaurant in America has boarded the train for Belgium. Perhaps the most well-known holdout is Waffle House. A staple of the American south, the chain restaurant has served up their thin “sweet cream waffles” for over 60 years—and you won’t find any thick waffles on the menu.
In fact, in 2014, the restaurant chain led a tongue-in-cheek “boycott” of Belgian waffles on the eve of the U.S. men's soccer team playing Belgium in the World Cup finals. (Belgium won.)
“While we are not 100% against Belgian waffles, we prefer the traditional ‘American-style’ sweet cream waffle,” a representative for Waffle House says. “With the smaller dimples, you can get better distribution of syrup. This way you are ensured to get the right waffle-to-syrup ratio in each bite. The thinner American Waffle is also better because it cooks more evenly.”
At the end of the day, though, and on most menus, Belgian waffles still reign supreme. I’m still trying to track down that thin waffle iron. But as my options grow fewer, I’ve come close to accepting that the waffles of my youth have gone the way of Saved By the Bell and low-rise jeans and surrendering to the cult of the fluffy, pompous Belgian. Just think of all the Snapchats.