The origins of chicken and waffles is a contentious one. Certainly, its status as a North American creation is largely undisputed, but when it was invented and by whom is another story.
The combination of ingredients seems to date back to at least the 1600s, probably in Pennsylvania, yet it was a restaurant in 1930s Harlem that made it a commercial success. However, it seems that chicken and waffles as we know it today – fried chicken served on waffles with sweet condiments – must be credited to the cuisine of slaves in the Deep South.
In the 17th-century, chicken and waffles emerged as a common dish among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Waffles were already a popular food in north-western Europe, including in the Netherlands, so it’s no surprise that Dutch migrants to the New World have a claim to topping them with chicken. However, the chicken in this case was stewed, then spread or poured over the waffles in a state closer to pâté. Other meats were also prepared in this way for serving on waffles.
By the 1800s, German settlers in Virginia had also developed a similar dish, serving cooked meats on hot 'quick breads', sometimes similar to waffles, and doused in gravy. But around the same time, in nearby slave kitchens, chicken and waffles was starting to become recognisable as the dish we enjoy today.
In the antebellum South, yard birds like chicken were a key source of protein for enslaved peoples, being a relatively cheap meat and thus more willingly spared by slave owners. Since cooks also had a responsibility to feed their fellow slaves, with the more arduous and time-consuming meal preparation reserved for their owners, the chicken was usually cooked quickly, dropped into vats of lard.
But this deep-fried chicken had to be served as part of a substantial meal that could be eaten quickly in order for the slaves to return to work, while also providing them with enough energy to do so. That meant coupling the meat with waffles (usually made with rice flour batter) or biscuits, often topped with pre-made fruit preserves.
For those outside the US, the deep-fried chicken, waffles, and sweet sauce combination seems positively bizarre. If you’ve ever wondered who would come up with something like that, then now you have your answer: Somebody who needed to cook huge batches of energy-rich food that could be prepared and eaten quickly.
But unlike a lot of other foods that needed to meet the same criteria throughout history, chicken and waffles was delicious. And so began the dish’s humble contribution to the financial independence of many African-Americans.
Shortly after the Civil War, recently freed slaves were seeking financial opportunities in an environment that was still hostile to African-Americans. One common venture was the practice of waiter-carriers, where African-American (usually) women would sell homemade food at railway stations to passengers through the windows of stopping trains. Once again, convenient, energy-rich and delicious food was called for. Once again, chicken and waffles (or biscuits) was the answer. At least in Virginia.
50 or so years later, chicken and waffles was catapulted into culinary cult status. In 1930, the Wells Supper Club in Harlem made chicken and waffles one of its signature dishes, where it became so popular that the restaurant’s founder, Joseph Wells, is sometimes assumed to be the creator of the dish. This popularity was soon exploited by other Harlem eateries – and later, all over the US. Unfortunately, it’s unclear when maple syrup started to take over from fruit preserves as the sweet topping of choice.
And that’s the story of an American soul food classic. Now onto how to make it for yourself.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for something a little less conventional then we’ve got three great twists on the traditional chicken and waffles to recommend. First up, this oven-fried chicken and waffles with white gravy recipe from Baker by Nature is great if you liked the idea of chicken and waffles more before you found out it was sweet. Or even if you just want to justify eating waffles before dessert.
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