Chicken and Waffles

69. The last chapter of Adrian Miller’s modern classic, Soul Food, is titled “Whither Soul Food?” Miller’s proposal is both ominous and optimistic: “It’s time to revive soul food, before it’s too late.”


While you’re at it, also check out Miller’s new (2017) book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet

Too late? By some measures, soul food is a dying cuisine. A number of classic soul food restaurants in inner urban areas have closed in recent years. Potential replacements face the challenges of high start-up costs and the difficulty of finding access to capital in a financial system often infested by institutional racism.

Many have also raised concerns about the healthiness of a soul food diet. Today, we no longer consider restaurant meals a special treat, when we might feel free to indulge in the things that make food taste good, like fat and sugar. Instead, for many, restaurant meals are now part of the daily diet, and a daily diet of traditional soul food goes against current trends

The exception might be Chicken and Waffles. This is one of the dishes on many soul food menus that actually seems to be getting more popular. A couple of recent cookbook covers, from Harlem’s Melba Wilson to Oakland’s Tanya Holland, prominently feature chicken and waffles (my photos):

The flavor was popular enough that Lay’s turned it into one of their special-flavor potato chips. It didn’t win in it’s initial competition, but has since reappeared:


How did Chicken & Waffles make it onto so many soul food menus? The histories of the component parts are well-known. We’ve covered the history of fried chicken before. The frying part may have Scottish roots, but there is little argument that fried chicken as a tasty item reflects the skills of African American cooks.

The waffle, however, has a purely European origin. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 painting, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” there are two scenes involving waffles, including this one: 02carniva-835x1024

The woman in the lower left is carrying rectangular waffles on her broad-brimmed hat, while the woman in the top center is using a waffle iron over an open fire.

Waffles came into the Middle Colonies with the Dutch in New York and New Jersey, and the Germans (“Dutch”) in Pennsylvania. In the 1740s, the Dutch were holding parties known as “wafel frolics,” where “kissing constitutes a great part of its entertainment.” By this time, another crucial component was added: Maple syrup, unknown in Europe but readily available and affordable in the Northeast.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Germans came up with their own version of chicken and waffles. William Woys Weaver has written in detail on the subject. The waffles were crisp; indeed, a “soft waffle” was so undesirable that it became a euphemism for male erectile dysfunction. The meat could be anything–perhaps creamed chicken, but it could be catfish or ham–and the creamed gravy was more important. Sometimes the gravy would be poured on the waffle without any accompanying meat or fish.

But as far as we’re concerned, this dish represents an evolutionary dead end. As Chef Joe Randall said, “I grew up and began my career in Pennsylvania, and I’ve eaten my share of the Pennsylvania Dutch chicken and waffles from the recipes inspired by German Pennsylvania Dutch cooks. And trust me, that dish has nothing to do with the fried chicken and waffles.”

It was no less than Thomas Jefferson who seems to have popularized the waffle in the southern states. When he returned from France in 1789, he brought back four waffle irons that he had purchased in Amsterdam. His Monticello records include recipes for waffles:


This recipe for “Soft Waffles” is credited to Mrs DePeyster, a Dutch New Yorker

With Jefferson’s popularization of the waffle, we now have the requisite components in place in the south: Fried chicken, and waffles. From there, the southern foodways scholar John T. Edge seems to hold that it was inevitable that the two components would come together into one dish, and Virginia appears to be where it happened.

It’s certainly not difficult to see the dish being invented by accident, like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. We can imagine someone unintentionally sliding a piece of fried chicken into some maple syrup and thinking, Hey, that’s not bad…. like peanut butter and chocolate bumping into each other.


What we know for sure is that in the late 1930s, fried chicken and waffles as a dish was being popularized by a Harlem restaurateur, Joseph T. Wells, who opened Wells Restaurant (later, Wells Supper Club) in 1938.


2247 7th Ave. (Now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd) Old Phone directories suggest that Joe and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, lived upstairs.

Wells Supper Club started as a small restaurant with just three booths and five stools. (Ultimately, it would grow into a 250-seat operation.) The story is that jazz musicians from the surrounding clubs would stop in after hours, too late for dinner and too early for breakfast. In that case, the combination of fried chicken and a waffle satisfied both cravings. Marcus Samuelsson also points out that it would allow Wells to repurpose fried chicken left over from the dinner service.

The combination’s popularity helped Wells grow into a much larger operation, becoming a music destination in its own right, as the “Famous Home of Chicken and Waffles,” frequented by stars such as Sammy Davis, Jr., and Nat King Cole, who held his wedding reception at Wells.


Ad in the January 10, 1959 issue of the New York Age for a New Year’s Eve show at Wells.

Joe Wells may not have literally invented the combination, but he certainly deserves the credit for getting it into the public eye. Without the legacy of Wells Supper Club, I think it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t be talking about Chicken and Waffles today except as individual items.

In the 1970s, Harlem native Herb Hudson took the combination to Southern California and opened the first of his Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach. It quickly became a fixture in the L.A. area. In October 2011, President Obama’s motorcade made an unscheduled stop at Roscoe’s so that the President could order take-out: The Country Boy #9 with three wings and a waffle.


President Obama greets fellow diners while waiting for his order at Roscoe’s. He later joked with Jay Leno about making the Presidential limo smell like fried chicken, and how he dripped hot sauce on his tie.


Chicken and Waffles at Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, in Omaha, in October 2016. What my photo can’t show you is how good this meal tasted. The waffle was tasty and light, and the coating on the chicken was perfectly engineered to absorb maple syrup and hot sauce without falling apart.


One last curiosity. In English, “waffle” and “waffle” are actually different words. The noun that we’ve been talking about comes from a Dutch word, wafel, that has its roots in an old German word for “honeycomb.” But “waffle” can also be a verb, indicating vacillation, equivocation or indecision. That word has nothing to do with the waffle we eat. The roots of the verb are in a Scottish word, waff, that could be an imitation of the barking sound of a puppy, or waff as a variant of waft, waving in the wind. So waffle (n.) and waffle  (v.) are different words, even though they’re spelled and pronounced the same. Could we make English more confusing?

Meanwhile, here’s one of my own recent attempts at chicken and waffles, a dry-brined chicken breast on a Belgian waffle:



Salt and Midwestern Slavery

67. Salt is life. That’s not romantic hyperbole. If we have too little sodium in our blood (hyponatremia), all sorts of nasty things can happen to us, including seizure, coma, and death.

Of course, most folks worry about getting too much salt. The average American ingests about 3.5 grams of sodium a day. That puts us only in the middle of the worldwide pack. The world average seems to be about 4 grams. Some countries, from Central Asia to East Asia, eat much higher amounts. In Thailand, for instance, the average intake appears to be 13.5 grams per day, and in Kazakhstan, it’s 15.2 g.

Intake is much lower in sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, it’s at or below the intake considered necessary. This may explain how High Blood Pressure (HBP) became a special problem for African Americans. According to the American Heart Association, more than 40% of non-Hispanic blacks are hypertensive. HBP seems to hit blacks harder, and it seems to start earlier in life.

It appears that African Americans may be genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to salt. Their ancestors were forced, through enslavement, to live in an environment that encouraged excessive salt intake, far beyond what was typical in sub-Saharan Africa. Salt pork or bacon was an essential part of the Southern diet for whites and blacks alike. But the ancestors of European Americans were accustomed to eating significant amounts of salted fish and meats, especially during the winter months. Before refrigeration, anything not consumed fresh was probably salted. Today, even with our concerns about sodium intake, we get only about half of the sodium that the average American consumed in 1800.

Many components of “soul food” dishes are high in sodium, from sausages, to fried bologna sandwiches, to ribs prepared with salty rubs. One teaspoon of Louisiana brand hot sauce equals 10% of your recommended sodium intake. A whiff (¼ teaspoon) of my favorite seasoning, Slap Ya Mama, provides 13%. Half a cup of Bush’s canned baby butter beans is 20%. It all adds up, and quickly.

Where does all that salt come from? It became a strategic issue in the Civil War. The Union’s Gen. Sherman declared that salt was as important as gunpowder. “Without salt they cannot make bacon and salt beef,“ he said, and thus, the Confederate “armies cannot be subsisted.”

It takes about one pound of salt to produce nine pounds of bacon, and even more to preserve beef. So Union troops attacked salt production points on the North Carolina coast, at Saltville, Va., and other spots, while the Union Navy’s blockade kept out a lot of the salt the rebels tried to import from Wales.


Salt was a strategic mineral. One important site of salt production was in the southern tip of Illinois, the Great Salt Springs along the Saline River, in Gallatin County, near the Kentucky border. The main springs were Half Moon Lick and the repugnantly-named “Nigger Spring,” which points to the issue at hand:

Salt from saline springs is extracted by evaporating brine. But of course it takes water a long time to evaporate on its own, especially in a temperate climate. So the water must be boiled off in large evaporation pans. That, in turn, required large amounts of firewood (and later, coal). The whole process was arduous and labor-intensive.

Before English settlement, the French, who had learned about the saline springs from the Native Americans, worked the saline springs using enslaved labor brought in from the Caribbean. By the end of the 1700s, the French were using enslaved workers all the way up the Mississippi valley, as far as northeast Iowa and the lead mines of Julien Dubuque.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had forbidden slavery in the territory that included Illinois. But the enslaved held by the French who were already there were exempted. Meanwhile, slaveholding settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky had brought in their own enslaved people, and flatly refused to free them. In 1805, the Indiana Territorial legislature passed a law specifically allowing enslaved labor to be brought in to man the salt works. By 1820, the census showed 500 enslaved people in Gallatin and Randolph counties.

Slavery in Illinois finally became illegal in 1825, but a loophole was created for the salt works, which were leased from the state. The biggest salt works, covering 30,000 acres, were leased to John Crenshaw (1797-1871), who had more than 700 enslaved people working the salt furnaces and adjacent coal mines.

Crenshaw became incredibly wealthy, and the state of Illinois profited as well. At one point, the enslaved workers he held were generating one-seventh of the state’s budget.

Crenshaw’s mansion, Hickory Hill; now known as the Old Slave House. 

In addition to the profits from the salt works being generated by enslaved labor, Crenshaw was also interested in generating more enslaved workers to be sold. His slave quarters included a room known as the “breeding room” or “Uncle Bob’s room.” Crenshaw had imported a enslaved man named Bob, who had a reputation for fathering strong and healthy babies, and would force enslaved women to have sex with him.

Hickory Hill was also a station on the so-called Reverse Underground Railroad. It is said that Crenshaw used the third floor to house captured escaped slaves, as well as kidnapped free blacks, before they were taken into the slaveholding states for sale. The small cells are said to have ring bolts in the floor, for shackling his prisoners. In 1848, Crenshaw lost a leg when some of the enslaved men attacked him while he was beating the women.

Crenshaw was indicted at least twice for his slave trading and kidnapping activities, but he seems to have escaped conviction. Under the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, northerners were legally required to catch and return escaped slaves, which essentially legalized Crenshaw’s slave trading activity. In that same year, he and his family moved into the nearby town, ironically named Equality. A German family was hired to move into the house and run the farm. Since then, it is said that some 150 visitors have reported that the third floor is haunted.

The house was given to the state in 2000, but it is closed. Its morbid historical significance is clear, but no one quite seems to know what to do with it.

It’s one of the sickening ironies of America’s slave-based economy that enslaved African Americans were forced to produce salt, a product that continues to shorten their descendants’ lives.

The Crenshaw House also raises questions of reparations and social justice. Salt production was a vital industry, and the State of Illinois profited directly and significantly from creating loopholes to legalize the use of enslaved labor, in violation of the spirit of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.


Map of Minnesota Territory, c.1850. Minnesota Territory was created in 1849. It reached as far west as the Missouri River, including land that would become Dakota Territory in 1861. Wisconsin, to the east, became a state in 1848. Iowa, to the south, became a state in 1846. Nebraska Territory, to the southwest, was not created until 1854

Illinois was not alone. Many of Iowa’s earliest settlers in the 1830s came from slaveholding states. Some, including territorial officials, brought enslaved people with them, on grounds that they were “personal property.” Kidnappers and slave hunters from Missouri ventured into Iowa’s fledgling towns along the Mississippi.

Enslaved people were held by Army officers at Fort Snelling, in Minnesota Territory. The most famous enslaved Minnesotan was Dred Scott, of the infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision that declared, against Scott, that “Blacks had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”

In Wisconsin, the French fur traders held enslaved workers as far back as the early 1700s. Later, in the lead mining district in the southwest corner of the state, the territory’s first white settlers, many from the south, brought enslaved workers with them. Even the Nebraska Territory, with only a small number of white settlers before the Civil War, nonetheless counted 15 enslaved residents in the 1860 Census. That same year, in November 1860, only months before the Civil War, the Otoe County sheriff advertised the sale of Hercules and Martha, apparently to settle the debts left by a slaveholder.

Resolving the legal problem of enslaved people living in free territory caused harm in other ways as well. Some slaveholding settlers did free enslaved people, but others tried to ship them back to the south for sale. Being “sold down the river” to the misery of the huge cotton plantations in the deep south was especially terrifying. An 1842 case against Illinois’ John Crenshaw concerned the fate of Maria Adams and her children, who had been shipped off to Texas.

Slavery in the Midwest was controversial, of course. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became the law of the land, Missouri slaveholders stirred up trouble in the southeast corner of Iowa when they insisted that Iowans help them track down escaped slaves. The Texas Ordinance of Secession complained about Iowa as one of the states that was not upholding the “rights” of slave owners to their “property.” Many in the southern states were particularly angry that after the creation of Kansas Territory in 1854, Iowa’s Gov. Grimes had given aid and protection to Free Soilers crossing Iowa in order to enter Kansas.

Obviously, slavery was rare in the Midwest, but it did exist. And, as the case of John Crenshaw and his salt works reminds us, it could be every bit as cruel as the worst Simon Legree on a deep south plantation.

“Pig Foot Mary”

66. Lillian Harris (c.1873-1929) was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, and went on to Harlem to create one of the great “rags to riches” stories.


In the 1900 Census, there’s a Lillie Harris, born 1874, working as a cook in Belzoni, Mississippi. I can’t prove that they’re the same people, but there also aren’t an infinite number of Lillians or Lillies in the delta region in the 1880 and 1900 Censuses.

In any case, in the fall of 1901, Lillian arrived in New York City, in the vanguard of the Great Migration. Tens of thousands of African Americans left behind the oppression and danger of Jim Crow, and the grinding poverty of the rural south, for better prospects in the north. People from the delta region commonly went to midwestern cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit, while people from the southeast commonly went to east coast destinations such as New York (Lillian’s future husband, John W. Dean, came from Virginia), but whatever path she took, Lillian wound up in New York.

Lillian settled first in the San Juan Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood covered several blocks west of Columbus Circle, from W.59th to W.65th, between Amsterdam and 11th Avenues. In the early 1960s, it was bulldozed as part of an “urban renewal” project, and replaced by the new buildings of Lincoln Center. But beginning in the 1880s, it attracted a large number of migrants from the south, especially from the Carolinas, many of whom worked on the Hudson River piers.


This 1939 map shows the neighborhood in proximity to the piers

It was a rough neighborhood. Some say the San Juan Hill name came in honor of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black regiment that played a vital role in winning the Spanish-American War battle of San Juan Hill in 1898. It is just as likely that it got its name from the ongoing street battles between rival gangs, with Irish gangs from Hell’s Kitchen to the south and Italian gangs to the east and north battling with the neighborhood’s African American gangs. It is said that these gang wars inspired the musical West Side Story, and the film’s opening scenes were shot there in 1961, just before the area was demolished.

It was crowded. It is said that there were as many as 5000 people crowded into just one block. By the time Lillian Harris arrived in 1901, the neighborhood probably didn’t look much different than it did in this photo from the early 1940s:


When Lillian arrived, she followed the standard employment path generally open to black women, north and south: She became a domestic. But as soon as she’d saved up five dollars, she spent it on an old baby stroller, a wash boiler, and a bunch of pigs’ feet. She worked out an arrangement with a neighborhood saloon, probably Rudolph’s, to use its kitchen for boiling the pigs’ feet, and then she sold them from the baby carriage.

She was something of a character. She was a large woman, with a deep voice. Terms like “Goliath” and “Amazonlike” have been used to describe her. Invariably, she wore a starched, checked gingham dress. In the 1910 Census, she is described as a mulatto.

By then, she had married John Dean, who in 1910 was a postal clerk, and they lived on 59th Street. Then both of them moved uptown to Harlem. John opened a news stand, and Lillian, now known to the public as “Pig Foot Mary,” sold pigs’ feet and other southern specialties from a steam table next to John’s news stand on West 135th St. and Lenox Ave., (now Malcolm X Blvd). This 1927 photo may give something of the flavor of Harlem’s street life and its vendors:


Pigs’ feet are an acquired taste. They’re easy to make: just boil them long enough and then season them up with red pepper flakes. As with neck bones, they generate a delicious broth that’s great for rice. But there’s not much meat on them, and eating them requires one to suck around the bones. I’m not squeamish, but I have to admit that, as a white guy, the pinkish-beige color of the pig hide looks a little too much like my own hide.

But for southern migrants in the big city, “trotters,” fried chicken, and other southern delicacies represented a taste of home. Lillian made a lot of money at it, and knew how to manage her money. She began investing in Harlem real estate, and by the 1920 Census, her occupation was listed as “real estate agent.” In 1917, for instance, she bought a five-story apartment building for $42,000 and sold it in 1923 for $72,000. In current dollars, those amounts would be about $782,000 and $1.35 million. By the time she retired in the mid-1920s, she had built up an estate of $375,000, or about $5 million in current dollars.

Lillian also bought real estate in Pasadena, California. She seems to have died there in 1928 or 1929. John stayed in Harlem, and was still alive at the time of the 1940 Census.

The theme here is familiar, and a recurring one in this blog. Jessica B. Harris has written about the free and enslaved women street vendors of Charleston. Psyche Williams-Forson has written about women such as the Gordonsville (Virginia) waiter carriers who made the most of opportunities to sell items like fried chicken. Maria Godoy has written about the women of New Orleans who sold calas as a way of scraping together enough money to buy their freedom from enslavement.


Oyster and fish vendors of Charleston, c.1870

Lillian Harris used pig’s feet and other foods to get her foot in the door, and then proceeded to kick the door down.

Is there a moral to the story? At a personal level, it’s good to recognize and celebrate determination and achievement. At a social level, her story from a hundred years ago might give us pause to reflect on the harsh realities of income inequality and our lack of social mobility compared to our peers among the nations. But that will have to be a topic for another time.



Lillian’s place in Harlem history was established long ago by writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Roi Ottley. But her story still fascinates. Tn recent years, the Negro Ensemble Company has included a play based on her life to its repertoire (see our featured image above), and in 2011, Regina Abraham told Lillian’s story in a book for younger readers.

This is one of the promotional videos:

Potato Chips: Hiram Thomas

65. As we have seen in our earlier segments on George Crum and Emeline Jones, there is some general agreement that potato chips were invented in the Saratoga area, and probably in connection with an establishment known as Moon’s Lake House. But from there, the history gets murky.

The notion that Hiram Thomas (c.1834-1907) invented potato chips first popped up in an 1895 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune, which mentions an African American (definitely not the article’s original term!) who was serving potato chips at a Saratoga hotel. It doesn’t identify Thomas by name, but he was the man in charge at the time. The notion came up again in Thomas’ 1907 obituary, which was carried in newspapers across the country, even in distant towns like Salt Lake City.


Thomas’ association with Saratoga doesn’t go back far enough to allow for him to have done it c.1849, when the potato chip seems to have first appeared. Even if he had been there, he would have been a teenager, and it’s doubtful that any Saratoga cook would have let a teenager into a kitchen to do anything more involved that tote firewood or water.

So how did Thomas’ name get connected with the invention of Saratoga Chips?

Thomas had managed Moon’s Lake House restaurant in the 1880s, and then leased it from 1888-1894. It’s this association with the restaurant that popularized (and perhaps invented) the Saratoga Chips, that led to the notion that Thomas was the one who had invented them. But, as we have seen with George Crum and Emeline Jones, the real story about Hiram Thomas is more important than any mythology about inventing potato chips.

Thomas was born in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada c.1834. (The 1900 Census gives his birthdate as October 1834, but other sources suggest 1837-1838.) That means he was born free. In most of the census records, it says that both parents were born in Canada too, but in one of the 1880 census records (he shows up twice), it says that his father was born in Maryland, suggesting that his father could have escaped his enslavement and made his way to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

It’s not clear when Thomas came to the U.S. According to his obituary, Thomas was a steward at the Capitol Club, in Washington, D.C., where he served President Grant. Grant was President from 1869 to 1877.

No matter when it happened, Hiram’s stay in Washington may have been brief. We do know that by the 1870 Census, Hiram was working as a hotel steward in Manhattan. By 1870, he’d been married about five years. He and his wife, Julia Seaman, were living with her parents in Oyster Bay, along with the first two of what ultimately grew into a family of ten children.

Julia was also born free. I found the Seaman family in Oyster Bay in the 1840, 1850, and 1860 Censuses. Julia appears twice in the 1860 Census, once as living at home, and then again as an 11-year old servant in the home of William T. Frost. The Frosts were one of the old upper-crust families of Oyster Bay.

By 1880, Hiram had moved up to one of the top rungs on the ladder of restaurant success. The family was living in Manhattan, but Hiram was also spending the summer season in Saratoga Springs, where he was the head waiter at the Grand Union Hotel.


At the time, the Grand Union was probably the largest hotel in the world. It had 824 rooms and could accommodate 1800 or more guests. The average room was affordable, at around $120 in 2015 dollars, but some of the cottage rooms went for the equivalent of $2900 a night.


The dining room could seat from 1200-1400 guests. As head waiter, Thomas was in charge of a staff of 35 cooks, 200 waiters, and others. The daily feasts he had to oversee are hard for us to comprehend, as is suggested by an 1865 menu (before his time there), featuring a ten-course meal:


An indicator of Thomas’ success can be found in the fact that the Saratoga newspaper consistently referred to him as “Mr. Hiram Thomas.” It’s hard to imagine a southern paper, even well into the 20th century, using the Mister title for an African American.

From the Grand Union and the Moon’s Lake House, Thomas went on to the Lakewood Hotel, in Monmouth Co., New Jersey. Just as the upper crust of New York society spent their summers at Saratoga, The Lakewood was becoming an important winter destination.


One correspondent from Saratoga was delighted to find Thomas at the Lakewood, and wrote back to the local paper, “It is no small honor, you must understand, to have the dignified head waiter in a big hotel devote his time to you and even stop to talk with you.”

On the heels of all this professional success, Thomas rewarded himself in 1894 with a new house in Fort Greene Place in Brooklyn.


But he soon found out that his white neighbors didn’t want him there. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, “Every householder was indignant and in the first heat of excitement many harsh things were said.” The bottom line was that they were afraid his presence would decrease their property values. The opposition was led by Emma Andiron, said to be the first woman doctor in Brooklyn. One would think a pioneering woman doctor would understand prejudice…but no.

A local pastor, who had once been an assistant to the abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, stuck up for Thomas, and wrote that Brooklyn was behaving disgracefully. Thomas never moved in. After a couple of months, he sold the house, and the family settled in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. Hiram died in 1907. Julia was still there in 1910, along with most of her children, all adults by then, and unmarried.

Housing discrimination has never obeyed traditional North-South lines. Even in 2015, the Department of Housing & Urban Development estimated that there are over two million cases of housing discrimination each year, though less than one percent are reported.

The problem is that on an individual basis, discrimination is hard to prove. If your name is Shaniqua, and the landlord says he doesn’t have any apartments open, it’s hard to prove discrimination unless you call back and tell him your name is Hillary, and suddenly, you find out that half the building is empty.


A major provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 is the concept of disparate impact. In other words, we don’t have to prove we that can read someone’s mind and discern discriminatory thoughts. But we can look at the effects of housing practices and see if there’s a pattern of discrimination going on. In June 2015, the Supreme Court upheld this part of the law. Nonetheless, housing discrimination remains a problem, just as it was 120 years ago for one of the nation’s great restaurateurs.

Potato Chips: Emeline Jones

64. Emeline Jones. Today, George Crum is usually given credit for inventing potato chips. He probably didn’t, but it’s good to remember him for other reasons. But a hundred years ago, another prominent chef, Emeline Jones (c.1832-1912) was credited with their invention. She probably didn’t invent them either, but hers is also a story worth remembering.


In a 1912 obituary that appeared in the New York Age and other African American newspapers, Jones was described as “the originator of the Saratoga chips, which became a staple article of food at the various business resorts.”

Indeed, Jones had been there. She spent at least one season as a chef at Moon’s Lake House, on Saratoga Lake, the place where the so-called Saratoga chips were born, c.1850. She had been hired by Hiram Thomas, whom we will discuss in the next part of this little series. So it seems likely that Jones did actually cook the chips, which were served at the restaurant. However, as we saw in our feature on George Crum, the chips were around by 1849, and at that time, Jones was living in Baltimore.

But that’s where the real story gets more interesting.

Jones was born enslaved, either in Maryland or Virginia, but appears to have been freed before the general emancipation. In the 1860 Census for Baltimore, an Emeline Johns appears as a free mulatto. We’re assuming that’s our Emeline Jones. She worked in Baltimore and Washington, then made her way north to the New York area, including a stint in Long Branch, New Jersey.

By the 1880s, she had settled in Manhattan, where she built up a formidable catering business. Her obituary lists a number of prominent New York chefs who had trained under her. It is said that Presidents Arthur and Cleveland, both of New York, were so fond of her cooking that both had offered her a big salary to come to Washington and be the White House chef, but she turned down their offers.


Terrapin Stew

Jones was famous for her terrapin stews. In the days before emancipation, turtles were so abundant all along the Atlantic coast that they were considered a food for the enslaved. Terrapins favor the brackish water of coastal marshes, so they were easier to capture than sea turtles, and thus became a valuable protein source for the enslaved in coastal areas.


So how did a dish associated with the enslaved become the food of the rich and famous? In the first place, terrapins (as well as snappers and other turtles) were over-harvested, and went from being abundant to scarce. Among the various turtles, terrapins were the most highly-prized. The great French chef, Escoffier, declared the terrapin to be the king of the turtles.


Escoffier, checking out something. Let’s pretend it’s terrapin.

By the 1890s, the scarcity of these terrapins pushed the price of a bowl of terrapin soup to the equivalent of $135 in current dollars.

In the second place, preparing a terrapin was both difficult and time-consuming. The turtles had to be kept alive until the moment of preparation. Thus, the cook’s first job was to kill the turtles. Terrapins are comparatively small: the females are heavier, usually weighing a pound or so; the males, about two-thirds of that, so for any sort of feast, several would need to be prepared. Some cooks would throw the live turtles into boiling water first, and then proceed to butcher them, starting with the head. Others would behead and bleed them out first, then boil them before butchering. The butchering itself was demanding. Guts such the gall bladder had to be identified and removed carefully, without puncturing it.

As a result, preparing terrapin dishes was left to the professionals, which meant that only the rich could afford to eat them. And that was where Emeline Jones made her mark in the world of New York City haute cuisine.


A 1904 banquet at the Hotel Astor, featuring terrapin and canvasback duck, another expensive delicacy.

Here’s the moral of the story. There’s a curious passage in Emeline Jones’ 1912 obituary, reflecting on her prime years in New York City in the 1880s:

“Mrs. Jones’ assistants were kept busy filling orders. Colored cooks and caterers did most of the work in those times…. There was a tradition at that time before the advent of French and Italian cooks that colored cooks were the best.”

Today, many seem to think that African American chefs have to stick to the skilled preparation of traditional southern/soul dishes, or perhaps Caribbean or African dishes. In 2016, out of some 340 people named for James Beard awards, only two or perhaps three appeared to be African American. Young chefs find it difficult to break in to the broader world of cuisines.

One of those 2016 nominees, Eduardo Jones, talked about his experience “On Being Black in the Kitchen.” Others have sensed various degrees of racism in hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. Nicole Taylor identifies institutional racism as a factor. As African Americans in other lines of business have found too often, black chefs don’t have the same access to capital as their white counterparts when it comes to opening their own restaurants.

But the stories of chefs like Emeline Jones and George Crum, catering to the most sophisticated palates in New York City, remind us that skilled chefs can cook whatever they feel like cooking, whether a chef’s ancestry can be traced back to Africa, Mexico, France, Italy, or anywhere else. No chef should be stereotyped or limited by their ethnic heritage.

Even if they never invent the next potato chip.

Potato Chips: George Crum

63. George Crum. If you search for “Who invented potato chips,” the name that will pop up first and most often will be George Crum (c.1828-1914). The legend built up around him has taken on something of an “official” status, pushed by Saratoga boosters, local historians, and others. He’s also been the subject of a number of Black History Month features, usually with this formal portrait:


The “official” story comes to us in two versions: The first is that in 1853, Crum was working as a chef at the Moon’s Lake House hotel run by Cary B. Moon and his wife, Harriet, on Saratoga Lake, in upstate New York. A certain grumpy guest (later claimed to be Commodore Vanderbilt) complained that Crum’s fried potatoes were too thick, and sent them back. An annoyed Crum then shaved the potatoes as thinly as possible, fried them up, and poured salt all over them. But instead of being insulted, the guest loved them, and asked for more.

The second version of the story involves Crum’s sister, “Aunt Katie” Wicks (or Weeks), shown here with brother George in their later years:


In this version, Katie was peeling potatoes, and accidentally dropped a slice into a pan of hot fat (or a doughnut pot). She fished it out, and just then George came along and tasted it. He liked it, and proceeded to make more.

Either way, it’s a good story. It’s just that it’s probably not true. Dave Mitchell has done extensive research on George and family, and the history of the potato chip in Saratoga. He notes that some sort of potato chip was being served by the Loomis family at least by 1849, if not earlier. George and Eliza Loomis owned the Lake House before the Moons bought it. In the 1850 Census, George Crum and family (listed as “George Peck,” a spelling mistake to be explained later) lived next door, and George’s occupation was listed as “ostler,” or a hostler, i.e., the guy who took care of the horses, undoubtedly for the hotel guests at the Lake House. So he was, in a sense, there when it happened, though at the time, he was not a cook.

The story that George Crum invented the “Saratoga Chip” may have first started circulating in 1885, though it didn’t become widely known until a couple of 1928 articles, including one that went national, in the New Yorker.

But why George?

By the 1880s, George Crum was a well-known figure among the elite New York society-types who vacationed in Saratoga. His claim to fame was as an outdoorsman, a fisherman and hunter. He supplied several of the fledgling resort hotels with fresh fish and game, and may have led hunting parties in the Adirondacks as well.


Along the way, he developed his cooking chops, and in 1860, he opened his own place in Malta, near Saratoga Lake:


The George Crum House, Malta, NY

For the next 30 years, until it closed in 1890, the George Crum House did indeed serve the elites, including the Vanderbilts, Jay Gould, and Henry Hilton. But George specialized in fish and game, and didn’t even offer the potato chips that were being served at Moon’s Lake House.

In some records, George appears as George Crum, but he was born George Speck, usually appears as Speck in the census records (”Peck” in 1850), and Speck is also the name on his grave marker. He seems to have used “Crum” in a professional capacity.

Why? The usual story is that his father, Abraham, used Crum when he worked as a jockey. But there may be another explanation. George’s father, Abraham Speck, was “a well known deformed colored man,” injured in a childhood riding accident.

But that injury didn’t stop Abraham from getting into a lot of fights. From 1830 on, he was convicted of assault and battery a dozen times. The worst incident came in 1844, when it sounds as though he actually took a shot at a local tax assessor who had put a school tax levy on Abraham’s property. The incident got him sent to Sing-Sing Prison for a ten-year sentence (where he appears in the 1850 Census), but in 1851, he was pardoned by the Governor.


On this 1856 map, Abraham Speck’s farm appears in the upper left corner, just above the point where the orange, green, and red colors meet.

Abraham’s father, in turn, was John Crum, probably born c.1744. His name appears in a list of Revolutionary War veterans, and late in life, his wife, Catrina, claimed a pension for his service. When George put together his own biography for a county history, he claimed that his father was of German descent, and his mother, Diana Tull, was of Native American stock.

The truth of all of this is messy. Both George and his father were usually, though not consistently, listed as “mulatto.” It’s not clear that his mother had connections to the neighboring Mohican tribe. It’s also not clear that his grandparents, the Crums, were of German or Dutch descent. It seems more likely that they were people of color, probably of mixed ancestry.


This sketch of George Crum appeared in the New York Herald in 1889

Where did the “Speck” name come from? Abraham also used it on occasion. In the 1855 New York State Census, it appears that the census taker wrote the name as “Abram Crum,” then crossed out Crum and wrote in Speck. In the 1800 Census, when he was in Watervliet, New York, some 20 miles south of Saratoga, Abraham appears as “Abrm Speck, a free Negro.” (Note: Abraham’s birth is often dated c.1789, but his appearance as the head of a household of four in 1800 suggests that he must have been at least 21.)

Some have speculated that the “Speck” name may have come from a connection with the Speck families in the Schenectady area, perhaps as hired or enslaved servants. In any case, we can’t help but wonder if George’s professional use of the Crum name may have had more to do with putting some distance between himself and his father’s reputation as a brawler.

Did George Crum really invent the potato chip? No. But the truth is more interesting. Certainly by 1800, Abraham Speck was “a free Negro.” We forget that at one time, every colony allowed slavery, and slavery persisted in New York into the 1820s. In Watervliet in 1800, out of a total population of 4,992, there were 412 enslaved people, and only 45 “free persons of color.”

Abraham may have had his problems, but he was also the first person of color to vote in Ballston Spa after the 15th Amendment was passed. He voted in a special judicial election in 1870.

Meanwhile, George really did become a prominent chef, so much so that somewhere along the line, many people just assumed that he must have been the one who invented the potato chip. And that’s a pretty good reputation for anyone to have.


Cream of Wheat (2)


62. In our last post, we focused on the Cream of Wheat chef as “Rastus,” and all that name embodies in American social history. But there’s another dimension we left untouched.

In the advertising artwork of the 1910s and 1920s, sometimes the Chef was presented as a hotel chef, working in the “Cream of Wheat Inn.” But more often, the Chef was presented not as a “chef” per se, but as a combination of household cook and waiter, sometimes preposterously so, as in this 1911 ad:


Why are these people dressed like that? Those costumes look more 1811 than 1911.

On at least one occasion, as seen in the 1909 ad below, the Chef was not only the cook but also the railroad dining car porter, so that two classic stereotypes are fused into one. Of course, stereotypes are usually rooted in some grain of truth, and in 1909, cooking and railroad work were two of the comparatively few non-farming occupations that were generally open to African American men. We’re still struck, of course, by the clumsiness of trying to jam both stereotypes into the same scene:


Frequently, the Chef was shown serving children. And do we even need to say it: serving the white children, such as in this 1918 ad:


In general, such ads convey the idea that Cream of Wheat, via its Chef, should be part of your family’s daily routine. In a number of ads, the Chef is feeding the children, or interacting with the children playing in his kitchen.

At times, the Chef seems to be not just the family cook but something of a male nanny as well.


In this 1908 ad, the Chef stands side by side with a white child’s “mammy.”

Sometimes, Cream of Wheat’s artists crossed a line from benign to the malicious, and dipped into blatantly offensive “Rastus” stereotypes, as we saw in part 1. But for the most part, the stereotypes were milder: the Chef is part of your family, and, gosh darnit, the kids just love him. One of the good ones.

Yet in terms of representation, the milder stereotypes are just as devastating. For many years, the product’s social message was clear: black America exists to serve white America. Slavery may have officially ended with the Civil War, but in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were still seen as the servant class: the cooks, the waiters, the porters, the nannies. In the south by law and in the north by custom, that was the status quo that white America fought to maintain through segregation, restriction, and marketplace manipulation: This is where you may live, work, eat, drink water, go to the bathroom, and sleep when you travel. This is where you may send your kids to school, and here are the low-paying jobs they may inherit when they grow up….

At least Cream of Wheat gave their Chef a genuinely human face, and so I suppose we should view this as a baby-step forward in representation. They didn’t dip into the Zip-Coon, half-man half-ape grotesquery that permeated so much advertising, and persisted in some areas into the 1950s. The Chef may be your personal servant, but at least he’s a man and not a cartoon.

The Cream of Wheat guy was modeled on a real chef. The company has always said that in about 1900, it paid $5 for a photo of a real chef in Chicago.

It is believed that the real-life chef was Frank L. White, who lived the latter part of his life in Leslie, Michigan. A few years ago, a researcher, Jesse Lasorda, put the story together. White was born in 1867 in Barbados, and came to the U.S. as a child, in 1875. He was later naturalized as a citizen. This is reflected in the 1930 Census and the Michigan record of his second marriage, late in life.

It appears that White, like many chefs, moved around a lot. But after World War I, he settled in central Michigan, working as a chef at the Holly House in nearby Mason, south of Lansing. It is said that he was famous in the area for his “Maryland” chicken. By the time of the 1930 Census, he had retired from cooking. Nonetheless, when he died in 1938, the local newspaper identified him as the Cream of Wheat guy. A few years ago, a public campaign raised enough money to put a marker on his grave, which bears his famous image.


So what’s the moral of the story? Whether White was the real Cream of Wheat guy or not, when we see that face in the cereal aisle, his story is the one we ought to remember and celebrate: A Bajan comes to America, works hard, is respected by the community for that work, and is remembered in the local paper when he dies. Aristotle would call that a good life.