What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear “waffle?” Is it a short-stack of crispy, golden diner waffles smothered in warm maple syrup, a frozen Eggo toasted to perfection or is it more a thick and fluffy Belgian waffle topped with macerated strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream? However you think of waffles, you may be surprised to find that these delightful breakfast items have come a long way.
Waffles, believe it or not, can be traced back to ancient Greece where citizens of Athens cooked flat cakes between two metal dishes over hot coals. The word “waffle” is actually derived from “wafer” – like the wafers that Catholics could eat during communion and times of fasting. Bakeries in the Middle Ages saw an opportunity to profit from this religious custom; competing with monasteries in producing wafers for the religious public, these bakeries started making wafer-like pastries that were tastier and far more popular – the waffle.
Waffles gained so much popularity during the Middle Ages that actual waffle irons – obviously a primitive sort – were created, some engraved with family coats of arms, religious symbols and even the recognizable honeycomb pattern believed to look like interlocking crosses. Waffles became an affordable diet staple, originally calling for only flour and water. The wealthier citizens splurged on waffles made with honey, eggs and even wine. According to the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture
, “The waffle is a later offshoot of the basic wafer idea, but taking it to an opposite extreme. Where the wafer served as a metaphor for fasting and self-denial, the waffle became the Protestant symbol of festive luxury.”
Fast forward a few centuries and the waffle made its way to the New World thanks to the Pilgrims. On a stop in Holland before crossing the Atlantic, the Pilgrims were introduced to the famous waffle and loved it so much, they couldn’t leave it behind. Dutch immigrants take the credit for popularizing waffles in New Amsterdam (now New York City). Rumor has it that Thomas Jefferson bought a waffle iron as a souvenir while he was visiting France; he used it to serve waffles in the White House, a trend that triggered waffle parties nationwide. By the Civil War, waffles could be found in most hotels.
Electric waffle irons first appeared in the 1890s and, by World War I, they were very popular wedding gifts.
Belgian waffles as we know them were originally introduced in the United States at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York by Maurice Vermersch. He and his wife had seen these waffles at the Brussels World Fair in 1960, but since he assumed no one really knew where Brussels was, Vermersch changed the name to Belgian waffles. The most significant difference between regular waffles and Belgian waffles is that Belgian waffles call for yeast and egg whites, offering the fluffier consistency for which they are known.
Over the years, waffles have been integrated into a variety of dishes including a famous treat with an unknown origin – chicken and waffles. Although the dish itself supposedly has roots as far back as when Thomas Jefferson purchased his waffle iron, the success of Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, founded in 1975 in Hollywood, California, really put the delicacy on the map.
So, whether you prefer your waffles slathered in butter and maple syrup or topped with sliced bananas and sprinkled with powdered sugar, or even served alongside some fried chicken, celebrate International Waffle Day your way.