Think about waffles and you might recall thick Belgian ones or the cardboard tasting cones that hold ice cream.
In many places, a Waffle is a cultural symbol, a popular treat, or an essential ingredient in everyday life. From Syria to Vietnam to their Dutch origins, waffles actually unite the world. For me, a waffle links me to my childhood, connects me to my husband and is the batter between me and my children.
My first memory of these coffered confections is from my pre-school years.
We lived in a tenement house in the smallest city in Rhode Island. At one square mile, streets were filled with three-decker dwellings where mill workers and tradespeople lived. There was a family on every floor. In our building, we were the middle of the sandwich. Nana was on the third floor; us on the second, and an unrelated middle-aged couple on the first.
Breakfast was uneventful eggs, cereal, or hot porridge. One Sunday, the downstairs neighbor knocked on the door and presented a red gingham kitchen towel-covered plate to my mother. The smell was amazing.
My sister and I rushed to the table for the big reveal. “What are those?” we asked wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Our mother said the magic word. Waffles.
The woman downstairs not only made the waffles, but she also floated them in a lake of maple syrup and topped them with confectioners sugar. It changed my life.
From that point on I’d think about waffles as a neighborly gesture, one that would influence key points of my life. We have no idea why she decided to indulge us with her cooking. Perhaps she missed her children. Or maybe she thought to delay a rent increase imposed by my father. We never really knew this downstairs couple. Today I wish I’d asked her about the waffle tradition.
When they moved, we begged our mother for waffles until she relented and bought a waffle iron. Winter Sunday night’s featured old movies on the television and if we were lucky, breakfast for dinner. Waffles prepared the way our former neighbor had. Nothing else would do.
A Medieval Tradition
While ‘to waffle’ means ‘to vacillate,’ countries around the world are linked through a culture of these indented creations from the medieval period to today.
The first waffle recipe dates to a Frenchman’s instructions to his wife in the 14th century. The ingredient missing from today’s mixes? The wine he advised her to include.
In the 15th century, Belgian waffle irons resembled their modern descendants. The ingredients of eggs, sugar, and flour are familiar to us, but these ancestors also contained grated bread, wine and spices. Sugar as a valuable commodity made these waffles available in only wealthy kitchens until the introduction of beet sugar. Francois I, King of France from 1494-1547 loved his waffles so much he had a waffle iron cast in silver.
By the 18th century, these grid patterned treats were everywhere in Europe with varying names and ingredients by country. Whipped egg whites, yeast, chocolate and butter could be added. At the beginning of the 18th century, New Jersey residents held “wafel frolics, parties where hosts served waffles.”
All was well until the waning of their popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. The 1904 St. Louis World Fair lore credits a Syrian immigrant, Ernest Hamwi, a waffle vendor, with creating a waffle cone so visitors could eat ice cream after he ran out of dishes. As the world watches political events in Syria, let’s not forget that America’s iconic summer treat wouldn’t be the same without Hamwi.
Waffles in the Family
In the 1920s, recipes for waffles began disappearing from cookbooks at the same time that home waffle irons and pre-made mixes relegated their making to homes rather than street vendors.
My mother always used Bisquick. No juggling of measuring cups and multiple ingredients. Milk and the mix with an egg combined with a few minutes in the iron and it was done. Little mess and even less fuss.
My first purchase in my adult apartment was a waffle iron. No mixes for me. It was about trying to recreate that long remembered texture and flavor from my childhood.
I soon discovered that once you had a batter, you could improvise. I wasn’t content to have them for a meal. Friends came for chocolate waffles covered in ice cream or blueberry ones with whipped cream. A vegetable waffle as a side dish ended up in the trash.
Turns out all that experimenting connected me to its history. If I’d asked my grandmother, she might have told me about eating potato waffles (popular in England and Ireland) Are these still popular? Let me know.
Eventually, I settled into a routine and made traditional American ones. No Belgian deep-pocketed ones for me. Round seemed sacrilegious. Square waffles divided into quarters. None ever tasted as good as those made by the woman downstairs though.
It was my husband that continued the waffle tradition with our children. They equate them with Dad’s cooking. My husband currently prefers them made from a blue corn meal mix produced by a centuries old grist mill in Rhode Island. I’m seeking a perfect gluten free variety. And our children love the mix favored by their grandmother…Bisquick. Nothing fancy. No extra toppings just pure and simple the way my neighbor made them. Of course, I showed them how to sprinkle just the right amount of confectioners sugar on the top.
When I asked my son what he needed for his first apartment….you guessed it. A waffle iron. I think he’s living on them. It’s now a three-generation obsession.
The world of waffles continues to evolve. Hot dogs wrapped in waffles are popular in Vietnam, while fried chicken and waffles has made The Waffle House restaurant a success. My new waffle obsession is to find old recipes and try them. Potatoes, spices and maybe even a little wine will let me travel around the world and through history one batch after another.
National Waffle Day
Don’t forget to mark August 24, 2017, in your calendar. It’s National Waffle Day in honor of Dutch-American, Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, New York who received a U.S. patent for the first waffle iron.
Send me your favorite waffle recipe or tell me about your family history of waffles. I’d love to try some new varieties.