Chicken and Waffles: The Surprising Origin Story of a Classic Southern Dish
Fried chicken and waffles shouldn’t work together. Fried chicken is a juicy, crunchy, savory dish best served for Sunday dinner. And waffles…waffles are a breakfast delight, dripping with butter and syrup and served alongside bacon. Everyone knows this.
So, who is the culinary genius who first piled a crispy piece of steaming, golden, crispy chicken on top of a fluffy grid of syrupy-sweetness, creating this comforting Southern classic? The answer, it turns out, is complicated.
You see, neither fried chicken nor waffles are native to the American South. Fried chicken goes all the way back to the medieval ages in Europe, where cooks were fond of “chicken fricassee”. America’s first First Lady, Martha Washington, even had two recipes for chicken fricassee in her recipe collection. But, after years of home cooks improving on a classic, in 1881 African-American cook Abby Fisher published a recipe for fried chicken in her book “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” putting into print the version of the dish most Americans know best.
At the same time, waffles were also capturing the tastebuds of the burgeoning nation. Waffles had been around Europe since the middle ages, beginning as a communion wafer and evolving into a popular street food. Dutch immigrants brought waffles with them to New Amsterdam, before it became New York. Then, in the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson started an American waffle craze when he returned from France with a goose-handled waffle iron and waffles became a staple in American kitchens after the electric waffle iron was introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair.
But who first put chicken on a waffle? It’s hard to say. The one thing we know for sure is that this “Southern” favorite, didn’t actually start in the South.
By most accounts, the rib-sticking, crave-inducing, version of the dish we know and love today first appeared on the menu of the Wells Supper Club in Harlem in 1938. That’s right—it started in New York. The supper club was a popular late night stop for jazz musicians after their gigs. Too late to eat dinner but too early to eat breakfast, fried chicken on a waffle seemed like a good compromise to the hungry musicians. The dish was popular with Wells’ famous guests, like Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole and Gladys Knight, and also the non-famous guests—like Harlem native Herb Hudson. In 1976, Hudson took to the dish west and made it the central focus of his Los Angeles restaurant, Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Roscoe’s quickly became a popular stop for LA’s glitterati, and the dish was soon popping up on the menus of soul food restaurants across the country, and it especially took hold in the South.
Southern, northern, western—wherever it is that chicken and waffles started, it’s a dish that causes people from coast to coast, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, to lick their lips in anticipation. A crispy mound of golden chicken atop a fluffy waffle platform, with creamy melting butter and warm, sweet syrup—it’s no surprise it took several someones in a nation of people from everywhere, to dream up this harmonious, delectable combination.
Come by Southern Table to tickle your tastebuds with the comfort foods, like chicken and waffles, that made the South a culinary destination.