The Truth About The Origin Of Chicken And Waffles

In 2013, an NPR cooking show called The Salt produced a segment on fried chicken and waffles, but when they called it a traditional Southern food, Southerners were not amused — and they certainly let the show know it. One Southerner responded by saying they had never heard of the dish, while another said they grew up in the South and had never experienced chicken and waffles until they worked in Los Angeles. 

Why don't Southerners want to claim this dish? It's sweet and savory, crispy and crunchy, and a cacophony of flavors for your taste buds. Chicken and waffles, in a word, are perfection. But where did this dish originate and why are Southerners so opposed to having birthed it? Is it the butter? The syrup? What could it be? 

NPR decided to follow-up with the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of Fried Chicken: An American Story, John T. Edge. When they asked Edge what kind of dish chicken and waffles is, he definitively declared that it is a Southern dish, " ... but a Southern dish once or twice removed from the South." What does that mean? 

The genesis of chicken and waffles and its rise in popularity is actually kind of complex.

How the chicken and waffles combo was born

Taking a middle of the road stance, Edge reveals in his book that both the East and West coasts share in the blame for the popularity of chicken and waffles — a seemingly nice way to appease Southerners who do not want chicken and waffles to be Southern. Furthermore, the food historian conjectures that the dynamic duo probably originated as early as when Thomas Jefferson introduced Americans to the waffle iron he brought back from an excursion to France. 

Edge's research comports with another writer's theory that the dish was created by enslaved Africans who used a rice flour batter to make the waffles, which would have been thinner and crispier than what we enjoy today. They would use preserves as the sweet component and served it up with fried chicken. 

From here, the dish continued to evolve. According to soul food historian Adrian Miller, who also happened to write a James Beard award-winning book titled Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, German immigrants of the nineteenth century made their version of chicken and waffles a Sunday dinner where they smothered the duo in gravy. Soon it became the "gold standard of plantation hospitality," he wrote (via My Recipe). 

Modern chicken and waffles

Fast forward to the 1930s and the yummy and delectable soul food-inspired version of chicken and waffles that we enjoy today found its way on the menu of Well's Supper Club in Harlem. This famous eatery was frequented by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole. These jazz icons would find themselves there in the late evening/early morning hours after wrapping up their evening performances at clubs around town. 

Chicken and waffles served as a compromise between dinner and breakfast. The pairing finally arrived on the plates and menus of restaurants in California in the early 1970s, the first at a Long Beach fast food chain called Roscoe's. Today, the dish is an "any time of the day you want it" meal, served at diners, fast food spots, and upscale restaurants everywhere. 

If you are wondering if there are there any rules of etiquette with chicken and waffles — the short answer is no. The only directive is the chicken should be on the bone and Edge recommended drizzling the maple syrup on the dish, and splashing it with Tabasco