"People think chicken and waffles are a freakish combination, but it's not that odd of a dish," says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Mississippi, and author of the soon-to-be-published Fried Chicken: An American Story. "There's not that big of a gap between a piece of fried chicken and a waffle and chicken with a biscuit or a hoecake."
Some food historians credit Thomas Jefferson with bringing the waffle iron across the Atlantic in the 1790s, but it's equally possible that other irons came over with immigrants from the Netherlands and Germany. And waffles weren't always served for breakfast with whipped cream, strawberries, and chocolate syrup. Edge says that the Pennsylvania Dutch use them as a base for creamed chicken, and another traditional Southern cookbook by Bill Neal includes a recipe for waffles made with leftover grits.
But who put the waffle side by side with fried chicken? A Harlem restaurant named the Wells Supper Club has trademarked the logo "Wells: Home of Chicken and Waffles Since 1938," and claims to have started selling the dish to clubgoers in the dusk of the Jazz Age, ostensibly as a late-night snack for folks who couldn't decide between breakfast and dinner. But Edge thinks the origins of the dish go farther back, brought to New York in the great migration of African Americans from the South. "My guess is that it comes from the days when someone would go out in the morning and wring a chicken's neck and fry it for breakfast. Preparing a breakfast bread with whatever meat you have on the hoof, so to speak, comes out of the rural tradition."
Chicken and waffles migrated to Los Angeles from Harlem with Herb Hudson, founder of Roscoe's House of Chicken'n Waffles. According to Jai Rich, Roscoe's director of marketing, Hudson and his friend Roscoe (whose full name was lost in the mists of time) moved to Southern California from New York and opened their first store in Hollywood in the mid 1970s. Hudson had friends in Motown and television such as Natalie Cole and Patricia Edwards, Derreck Johnson's aunt. Edwards was a stage manager for Norman Lear Productions at the time, and says she used her connections to get the word -- and the waffles -- out to the show-business community. Soon Redd Foxx was telling TV land that he was heading down to Roscoe's after his show.
Roscoe's made chicken and waffles famous in a way that Wells never did, and in the past decade the combination has slowly spread across America. Gladys Knight -- another Wells regular, Edwards claims -- owns a chicken-and-waffle shop in Atlanta, and other restaurants have opened in St. Louis, Louisville and, of course, Oakland.
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