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.”

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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“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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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: