Bust out the waffle iron and party like it’s 1799
In 1744, Yale student and man-about-town William Livingston went to a party so good it warranted writing home about. At one Miss Walton’s, he wrote, he had a “magnificent supper,” and there were so many guests that they spilled across two tables. But this “luxurious feast” was no ordinary gathering. At the center of the party were waffles, hot from the iron. This was a “wafel-frolic.” His only regret was the lavishness of the meal would spoil him, “because if this be the case I expect but a few wafel-frolics for the future.”
From the 18th century until as late as the mid-20th century, Americans held waffle-eating parties, sometimes known as “waffle frolics.” Hosts would serve a variety of dishes, with waffles as the crowning glory of the meal. At the most elaborate end of the scale, even the invitations were waffle-themed: a worthy tribute to a dish that was, at the time, almost as laborious as the present-day Eggo is quick.
Americans have eaten waffles since the early 17th century: Dutch wafel irons were allegedly among the trappings from home that made it to the New World on the Mayflower. The earliest devices had a hinge and were made of clunky wrought iron, often etched with swirls, initials, or a grid for decoration. In an 1840 book, Directions for Cookery, Eliza Leslie advises, “In buying waffle irons do not choose those broad shallow ones that are to hold four at a time, as the waffles baked in them are too small, too thin and are never of a good shape.” The best of these could be filled right up, then placed straight in the fire.
The main difference between the basic modern and early American waffle recipe is the amount of fat in the batter. Early recipes allocate no more than a single tablespoon of butter to four cups of flour and milk; present-day incarnations might have eight times that amount of fat. They were generally unsweetened, and leavened with yeast rather than baking powder. To prevent the mixture from sticking, early irons needed to be smeared with a square of pork fat, making the amount of butter in the batter rather irrelevant. Once the long-handled iron was greased, the chef would pour in the batter, clamp it shut, and set it to cook over the fire. Turning the iron over struck fear into the hearts of even the most experienced young wafflers—if the waffle fell out, one local paper reported, it “was a sure sign that for at least a year she would remain in a state of single blessedness.”
The waffle went mainstream in the United States in the 18th century, eventually finding a niche in the diets of pilgrims, paupers, pioneers, and presidents. The English spelling “waffles” first appeared in print in 1735, nine years before Livingston’s wafel-frolic. The country’s most famous waffle-iron owner at that time was Thomas Jefferson, who brought four back with him from France as souvenirs in the late 1780s. (It’s not clear whether he popularized the dish, as is often claimed, or was simply riding the waffle wave. Either way, he did no harm to its roaring ascent.) Waffle parties thrived during the Civil War, particularly in the North, where supplies were more easily obtained.
In the early 20th century, the parties grew fancier still, blooming from gatherings among a circle of friends to full-blown extravaganzas. A 1904 Shrove Tuesday party by the “ladies of St. James” in Lewistown, Montana, was a “most decided financial success,” the local Argus reported. In 1942, Brooklyn Chapter 100 of the Navy Mothers Clubs of America held a waffle party for 300 blue jackets.
Paul Pierce, the editor and publisher of the early 20th-century magazine What to Eat, gave detailed instructions for how to throw a waffle frolic. These extended even to themed invitations, made of cream white satin and trussed up to look like waffles—or, at least, as much like a waffle as a piece of satin can look. They were stuffed with cotton wadding, tacked at the sides to replicate the joint of two iron griddles, and singed with an iron to create the authentic scorch-marks of a real-life waffle. “Come and eat me” was written in “sepia tints” on one side of the invitation, while on the other the time and place, as briefly as possible. “Use the abbreviated form for this lettering,” Pierce advised, “on account of the difficulty encountered from limited space and the writing on satin."
When the guests arrived, however, they’d be met with an assembly line. The host was instructed to give each guest a numbered “utensil” (flour sieve, salt box, egg beater) and appoint a Master of Ceremonies to “superintend” as guests variously warmed mixing bowls, stoppered and unstoppered milk bottles, and greased the irons. Finally, all but two guests filed into the dining room: Those left in the kitchen made more waffles, brought them out, and then swapped spots with those who had already had their share. “The swinging doors through to the butler’s pantry are propped open so as not to isolate the cooks,” Pierce cautions.
The mixture might have been more abstemious, but the toppings were not: bowls of whipped cream or powdered sugar, and pitchers of maple syrup “boiled down and beaten as thick as batter.” And while the waffles made their way out of the kitchen, a waiting assembly could feast on “a medium sized veal loaf … a mould of tongue jellied with hard boiled eggs” and sandwiches of “marmalade, pickles and graham bread.” All of this, Pierce said, could be relied upon to produce an evening of “jollity” (and likely indigestion, too).
After 200 years, however, such evenings of jollity began to wane. From the 1960s, evidence of waffle frolics of any sort has been thin, as the waffle itself and the kit to make it have undergone evolution after evolution. Waffle makers were first adapted for stovetops, then made electric; box mixes eliminated the need even for a measuring jug; and products like Eggos meant every morning could conceivably feature a waffle, or something approximating it. With all of these developments, the waffle has been relegated from complex culinary creation to near-ordinary breakfast fare—a dish worth savoring, but perhaps not dedicating an entire party to.