Chicken and waffles present a unique arrangement of a sweet and salty, soft and crispy dinner and breakfast. But where did this dish originate from? The dish took birth during the Harlem Renaissance – the 1920’s and 30s cultural and artistic explosion. The era is also considered one among Afro-American history’s creatively conscious and socially alive eras. The era gave rise to a huge sea of Black musical, visual and literary artistic expression that introduced people to tap dancing, jazz, and also chicken and waffles.
Before we get started with the dish, it’s imperative to break the food into its two fundamental elements: waffles and fried chicken. The fried chicken first appears as fricassee – the pieces being sauce-braised later. During medieval times, fricassee was well-loved in the Mediterranean basin. For making fricassee, one needed an iron pot, fat, and meat – all of these items were easily found in the region during that time.
During the 1300’s, friquasee (French word) started showing up in French food literature. Early cookbooks such as Le Viandier comprised fricassee recipes that could be prepared with any type of meat, and not just chicken. During the 17th century, the recipes primarily comprised chicken. First lady and wife of George Washington, Martha Washington had a couple of fricassee recipes in her recipe kitty, one among them needing butter (0.5 pounds) to fry the sliced-up chickens. There’s another Brown Fricasey recipe in which chicken pieces are first coated with egg, spiced breadcrumbs and then butter-fried. Once fried to a crispy brown, the chicken was served along with mushrooms, gravy and pickles.
Pennsylvania Dutch had its own version already that entailed a waffle covered up with gravy and pulled stewed chicken topping things up. However, the 1938 Harlem dish varied in many ways. It comprised nicely consummated fried chicken and a crispy, light waffle.
Music was heavy and hot at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Musicians such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller were exhibiting their skills in front of small, room-only audiences in several uptown well-known venues such as The Savoy Ballroom and The Cotton Club. Late in the night, after the show, the musicians would venture out on 135th Street or Lenox Avenue scouting for places to eat. But the majority of restaurants shut doors at 11 pm – almost an hour prior to the conclusion of most jazz sets.
Wells Supper Club started offering dinner service during late nights to these hungry musicians and the meal pre-dawn, after-midnight was invariably chicken & waffles. The unique flavor blend and overall taste of the dish became an instant hit and also an easy remedy for Mr. Joseph T. Wells’ popular late-night eatery. Leftover dinner service fried chicken always ended up as waste. Therefore, offering chicken and waffles not just increased sales but also ensured little to zero wasted food.
Today, several American restaurants sell chicken and waffles, with some of the restaurants becoming popular for their own version of the dish. For instance, Los Angeles’ waffles and Roscoe’s House of Chicken are quite popular. Harlem does its bit to keep the dish alive; Ginny’s Supper Club provides a variant that comprises bourbon maple syrup and chicken liver butter. Or you can stay at home and make your very own waffles with a waffle baker.