Chicken and waffles? Sounds like an unlikely food combo, but it’s a classic dish loved by many. If you already tried it, you can understand why it’s appealing. It gives you a delectable combination of sweet and salty, soft and crunchy, maple and meat, which amazingly complement one another quite well. It’s a comfort food to delight about – a dynamic duo of culinary goodness.
If you like waffles and you also enjoy fried chicken, chances are you’re going to enjoy them served together. When you order chicken and waffles on a restaurant, most probably it is going to come with a large waffle topped with a whole piece of fried chicken. Some would like to pour the waffle syrup on top (yes, even on top of the chicken) before they dig in and start eating. To get the full experience, make sure you get a bite of both with every fork full, so you can taste why the blend of flavors is so great.
This dish is served at breakfast time, paired with butter and syrup. You may find it appearing commonly at brunch menus, paired with some fruits on the side. But there is no real rule on the most appropriate time to eat it. With fried chicken and waffles, you can have a reason to enjoy crispy fried chicken for breakfast and a sweet waffle for dinner.
The exact origins of this dish is unclear, but it started in the United States. Here are some of the several theories about the origins of the dish:
Let’s start with the Pennsylvania Dutch who had a special version of the dish. Waffles became available in America in the 1600s, as it was introduced by European colonists. During the 1800s, hotels, restaurants and resorts served outside Philadelphia served waffles with fried catfish. They also served other dishes like fried chicken, which gradually became the meat of choice because catfish is seasonal and has limited availability.
By the 1860s, waffles served with chicken and gravy were a common Sunday dish among the Pennsylvania Dutch. The traditional Pennsylvania Dutch version of the dish consists of a plain waffle topped with pulled, stewed chicken on top with gravy. It doesn’t have the crunchy fried chicken pieces like what popular restaurants offer today. By the late 19th century, the chicken and waffle dish became a symbol of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
Southern African Americans
Some may believe that the African Americans from the South started the recipe a long time ago. From the colonial period up until the early 1800’s, African American slaves were doing most of the cooking in the kitchens in the South. That time, they rarely eat chicken and it was considered as a delicacy, as it was more expensive that other types of meat. Slave cooks would make fricassee recipes from the popular cookbooks during the time, and they would fry the chicken their way. For decades, chicken remained a dish for special occasions for African American families.
During the Civil War, men began leaving their homes to become soldiers, and fried chicken became a dish of choice. Because the meat is fried, it became less prone to spoilage, allowing women to send it to their soldiers fighting in the battlefield. Other historians cannot find an actual early-era evidence of the existence of the chicken and waffle dish, and place the origin later, after the migration of the Southern African Americans to the North post-Civil War.
In 1881, an African American cook named Abby Fisher shared a recipe for fried chicken in her book What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, but the recipe for the combination of chicken and waffles wasn’t there, suggesting a later origin for the dish. Fisher’s recipe involves flour, fat and a finishing of thin gravy and did not require an extra braise in the sauce after cooking – which became the standard for fried chicken since then. Pop culture has associated the dish with the South by 1917, when novelist Edna Ferber mentioned a Chicago restaurant falsely advertising “Southern chicken dinner with waffles and real maple syrup, 35 cents each” in her book Fanny Herself.
Many modern variants of the dish has its roots in the African American community in Harlem, New York during the 20th century. The Harlem Renaissance, which happened during the 1920s and 30s, was known as the most creative and socially active years of African-American community. This era started the wave of Black literary, visual art and musical expressions, raising up Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Duke Ellington, tap dancing, jazz and even chicken and waffles. The chicken and waffles dish served in Harlem during the 1930s consisted of a light, crispy waffle with well-seasoned fried chicken on top.
During this era in Harlem, the jazz music scene was hot and heavy. After the musicians finish their late night gigs at around midnight, they head out to Lenox Avenue or 135th Street looking for a place to eat, but most restaurants and diners stopped serving dinners at 11 PM. A restaurant named Wells Supper Club, which was simply known as “Wells” to regulars, opened in 1938 and became a frequent hotspot for jazz musicians. Because they arrive too late for dinner and too early for breakfast, they enjoyed the purposely ambiguous dinner-breakfast combo of fried chicken and waffles. After a while, it was also frequented by musicians by the likes of Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. This restaurant became the home of fried chicken and waffles, and was the busiest during 2 AM.
Wells made chicken and waffles a nationwide trend. Herb Hudson, a Harlem native, opened a restaurant in Long Beach in 1975 dedicated exclusively to the dish: Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Roscoe’s also became a popular destination for music industry performers and professionals in the Los Angeles Area. Over the years, Roscoe’s became a well-known food joint in the Hollywood food landscape. Since then, chicken and waffles became known as a special in many soul-food restaurants.