There are few dishes in the world as recognisable as Fried Chicken, with KFC generating approximately $2.49 billion in 2019. A lesser known variant, at least outside the US anyway, is chicken and waffles.
Firstly, we in the rest of the world look at the dish with some suspicion, the kind of crazy combo that could only exist in the land of the free, but I have it on good authority that this dish is delicious. It’s easy to see why; crispy fried, lightly spiced fried chicken atop sweet waffles and slathered in maple syrup. What’s not to like? But where does chicken and waffles come from? And why does it appear to be a uniquely American dish?
I was surprised to learn that the question, ‘where does chicken and waffles come from?’ is mired in a three-hundred-year controversy for the culinary soul of this classic.
First off, the fried chicken is not an American creation. It largely depends on what you wish to consider fried chicken, but as early as the 4th century we can find a recipe for Pullum Frontonianum, (Apicus Chicken) in a Roman cookbook called Apicius. Indeed fried chicken has as long and storied a history as pizza.
The French, Italians and even the Scottish also had their own version and ways of preparation, but it’s true that what we today would recognise as ‘fried chicken’ appears to have been born in the US. As so many stories in colonial America, and later the US, it begins with slavery.
We all know the narrative by now, millions of men, women and children shipped across the Atlantic to work the plantations of the South. But these people were used for far more than just that. Many of the women made their way into Southern kitchens. There, they brought with them their unique use of spices and the culinary expertise of generations.
Chicken at the time was considered a luxury food, a reserve of the wealthy and powerful. Few in the early United States were more powerful than the slave owning elites and so chicken often graced their dinner tables, whether that be braised, roasted, or indeed fried. The method has changed much from its modern-day counterpart of spices, flour and frying oil (they likely used lard at the time).
The second part of the tale, the waffles are harder to pin down the origin of and were likely invented multiple times all over the world, but they have been traced back to Ancient Greece, where they were a kind of roasted flat cake called an Obelios. Later iterations can be found in the Oublies (waifers) used in Catholic Mass and the wafel in the Netherlands. It seems fitting that the English’s only contribution to the wafel was a linguistic one, we added the second ‘f’ and it just so happened to be right around the time we were colonising the ‘New World’.
Before the Civil War, African American families would have rarely eaten chicken due to its expense, but as chickens became easier to rear and cheaper to keep, the dish became available to black families. It is around this time, when it is no longer a luxury food, that the negative stereotypes around African Americans and fried chicken begin to emerge. Now that fried chicken was no longer the luxury of whites, it became a source of ridicule. Nowhere is this better epitomised that in D.W Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, a horribly racist film that I urge you not to watch, lest it get attention it doesn’t deserve.
The Meeting of Two Icons
The combination of these two icons is largely considered to be an organic one, happening slowly over generations. The Pennsylvania Dutch often served chicken and waffles topped with gravy, while there are records of broiled chicken and waffles being served in an abolitionist’s tavern, Warriner’s Tavern in the 1840s. The dish was prepared by freed female slaves, often the same ones who’d prepared it in Southern kitchens before the civil war.
The Chicken and Waffles we know today may be an organic creation, a natural pairing of spicy, salty and sweet, but there are a few notable individuals and establishments that are responsible for turning this classic into an icon.
Firstly, one of the often-asserted creators of Chicken and Waffles, Dickie Wells Jazz club. It’s said that the late nights of carousing and playing into the early hours left his customers with a problem — did they order dinner of breakfast? Dickie Wells gave them both, coffee with a splash of bourbon and chicken and waffles. This was offered as early as 1930 and soon other iconic restaurants like Wells Supper Club (no relation) sprang up. Throughout the 1930s and the Great Depression, chicken and waffles became a Harlem classic. A Jazz instrumental was even composed by Bunny Berigan titled ‘Chicken and Waffles’.
Around the same time, Chicken and Waffles was also being served in LA, but it would be much later, in the 1970s, when the West Coast had its own Chicken and Waffles golden age. A former Harlem man named Herb Hudson set up Ruscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. The restaurant drew in many celebrities and became a pop culture icon in its own right, further elevating Chicken and Waffles.
Today, Chicken and Waffles is enjoyed coast-to-coast and is an American classic. But why is it still largely unknown to the rest of the world? We know of it, and it is served in American-themed restaurants, but it’s not a global foodstuff in the way that other ‘American’ classics like hotdogs or apple pie are. Partly, I think it has to do with the food landscape of the rest of the world. We have our own classics that never really leave our shores. The Australians have meat-pies, the French Escargot and the English have Shepard’s Pie (unseasoned of course). What foods a nation exports may not always be the most representative of it, but they often suit the global palette the best. Chicken and Waffles may simply be too niche.
But I think it goes deeper than that. Food is ultimately about culture and history. Each dish is inexorably linked to the region that created it and the history that is attached to that region. Chicken and Waffles are a uniquely American story. The core components come from far back in history, brought there on the decks of ships by disparate people in vastly different circumstances.
Slaves laboured away in Southern kitchens creating the classics so ardently defended there today, creating dishes that they themselves would never be allowed to eat. After emancipation, women sold fried chicken in the streets, trying to make ends meet. Suddenly the classic was associated with poverty and black America and a stereotype was born. In the 1930s, when Chicken and Waffles was being eaten in the early hours of the morning in a smoky room in Dickie Wells Jazz Club, it must have felt like an act of rebellion, consuming something that only a hundred years before was made by your enslaved ancestors. Perhaps you were lucky enough to meet one of them. The years passed and slowly, but surely, freedom and recognition were won, but history and the bonds that bind us to it were not to be forgotten.
The origins of chicken and waffles are messy and confusing because America’s past is messy and confusing. Like all of the US, it is a combination of the work and knowledge of generations of individuals coming together to form something larger than any single narrative could possibly capture.