There is an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying: weeche Waffle sin Dudelarwet ferlore, which means “soft waffles are love’s labor lost.” In the Pennsylvania Dutch universe, there is probably nothing worse than a soft waffle, a bedroom euphemism for male dysfunction. So ingrained are waffles in our culture that less-than-perfect specimens are ready objects of contempt.
The German Reformed minister Peter Siebert Davis (1828-1892) was one of the first to remark on the prevelance of chicken and waffles among the Pennsylvania Dutch in his novel The Young Parson. In the course of discussing the sort of hospitality he received, the minister mentioned chicken and waffles as the “stereotypical” Sunday supper dish among the people in that area. The marriage of chicken and waffles was already a culinary institution in parts of the Dutch community by the 1860s, although to this day few people think of it as particularly Pennsylvania Dutch. To further confuse the issue, the dish was prepared in several different ways (and not always with chicken), the two basic forms being chicken-based gravy served over waffles and some form of chicken served beside the waffles. In either case the waffles were not sweetened, and when cooked to a turn, they were served crispy and hot.
There may be a presumed difference between the dietary habits of people living in towns and those of residents in the countryside – a dichotomy that is evident from other period material and even within living memory. Miriam Smoker Brendle, who grew up in an Amish household near Atglen, Pennsylvania, recalled during an interview that many country people were too poor to own waffle irons, so they made pancakes instead and ate them with chicken gravy. Truly frugal households used fried mush. There was a descending order of choices depending on economic circumstances. Just the same, chicken in any form was considered a special treat prior to the advent of large-scale poultry farming in the 1950s, and that is why chicken and waffles could attract such large crowds when served at country hotels and specialty restaurants.
In spite of this, the modern culinary explorer must become an intrepid traveler when it comes to seeking out chicken-and-waffle suppers in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. An early frost one October weekend brought the official end of summer to the hills south of Kutztown,and all the trees were ablaze with brilliant fall colors. The contrast between that backdrop and torrential rains mixed with fog and low-hanging clouds added a strangely wild and unpredictable note to my expedition to a chicken-and-waffle dinner being held at the Lutheran church in a quaintly named village called New Jerusalem.
Intimidating weather aside, the dinner was well attended, mostly by locals, a mix of elderly farmers and young families. Many came from other Lutheran churches in the area. It would seem that the dinners now have quite a following, with pork and sauerkraut one weekend and perhaps fried oysters at another church the next, as the locals move in round-robin fashion throughout the fall and winter from one event to the next. This is a form of migratory feasting not well advertised to the outside world but certainly well known through word of mouth.
The book on Pennsylvania Dutch chicken and waffles has not yet been written, but it will be a very thick tome to be sure, because this regional favorite among fire halls and church suppers enjoys a long and colorful history in southeastern Pennsylvania. While it is a dish that comes to the table in many varied forms, chicken is a latecomer to the culinary story, because in the early nineteenth century – and perhaps even before that – other creatures were stewed and poured over waffles.
The first known references to this concept emerged in Philadelphia during the early 1800s in the form of catfish-and-waffle dinners served by hotels along the Schuylkill River, and especially along Wissahickon Creek, which, prior to its incorporation into Fairmount Park was considered one of the best catfish creeks in the region. The Schuylkill Hotel (1813) was one such resort, and so was the more famous Catfish and Waffle House at the falls of the Schuylkill, which by 1848 had a well-established reputation that continued into the early 1900s.
The typical menus for all these waffle palaces consisted of fried catfish with pepper hash, fried potatoes, fried chicken, beefsteaks, stewed catfish, stewed chicken, and of course waffles to accompany the stewed dish of your choice. Strong coffee came with the meal; waffles as a dessert, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, were extra. These basic dishes were then arranged into price categories from relatively cheap and simple to a full spread with everything on the menu. Guests reserved whole tables and could arrive as a group and create a shared menu to fit their inclinations or budgets.
Since each category had its fixed price, these eateries appealed to people of modest means who knew in advance what they would get for their money. But the festive atmosphere of the hotels (there was often a band playing popular tunes), the lack of pretension that otherwise categorized high-class restaurants and hotel dining rooms of that period, and the woodsy locations situated near scenic outlooks along the water also attracted the wealthy as a way to indulge in local color. What set the catfish-and-waffle houses apart from the restaurants was their seasonality, for they operated only from May or June to October. This changed as blue-collar tourism moved into the countryside and small hotels sprouted up along the railroad and trolley lines. Why limit the menu to summer catfish when chicken can be served all year?
Whether the Pennsylvania Dutch hotels borrowed this menu format from Philadelphia or something like it had already existed in the Dutch Country is yet to be determined. One thing is clear: by the late 1800s chicken and waffles were considered by many writers to be emblematic of Pennsylvania Dutch cookery and cultural identity, at least on the local level. The Pennsylvania Dutch version in home cookery may have started not with catfish or with chicken but rather with pot pudding, a meaty pork-based pâté that was commonly melted in a skillet and poured hot over bread, over noodles, over potatoes, and yes, even over waffles – unsweetened of course.
Pennsylvania Dutch families I have interviewed about their food habits have been unanimous in confirming that most rural people did not eat out, especially prior to the 1960s when fast foods and supermarkets began to penetrate the countryside. The question then arises: who were the people who packed the country hotels on weekends and traveled many miles to partake of chicken-and-waffle dinners? One answer is affluent urbanites. In the early 1900s these were the people who owned touring cars. They were the people with disposable incomes, and in towns such as Reading and Allentown, they had enough family connections to Pennsylvania Dutch culture to enjoy its homey rusticity in small weekend doses.
This brings us to the flip side of the waffle story – if I may be permitted the pun. The other type of guest who visited the Dutch Country to eat local cooking and to take in the fresh rural air was the urban working class. Before the advent of labor laws, these people did not have vacations as we know them today. Many workers had only Sundays off, so their leisure time was defined by how far they could travel by train or trolley in one day. The local train line brought people out from Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania Dutch hotels in the Perkiomen Valley of Montgomery County on Saturday after work. They stayed the night, dined on a large country meal the next day, and retured in the evening so they could report to work on Monday morning. This type of urban-rural exchange was relatively short-lived in the Perkiomen Valley because the Depression brought an end to its hotel trade, and the automobile shifted tourism to areas much farther afield, especially Lancaster County and its Amish community.
The chicken-and-waffle dinner, and perhaps a day of antiquing before it, competed with the Amish for the attention of outsiders.
The waffle palaces of rural Pennsylvania attracted people not only from nearby cities but from neighboring states as well. Most of these hotels were not located near the Amish, so the chicken-and-waffle dinner, and perhaps a day of antiquing before it, competed with the Amish for the attention of outsiders. It provided an alternate reason for making a trip into the Dutch Country, and even to this day most of the establishments that keep chicken and waffles on the menu lie outside areas affected by Amish tourism, such as the Molly Pitcher Waffle Shop in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which may be considered a lineal descendant of the old waffle palaces that once lined the Schuylkill River.
The popularity of chicken and waffles was not limited to southeastern Pennsylvania alone: a careful study of menus from the 1920s and 1930s will uncover the dish all over the state, but especially along the major highways favored by tourists. The dish leapfrogged its way west along the Lincoln Highway and even followed more roundabout roadways.
While automobile tourism seems to have spread chicken and waffles rather evenly across the state by the 1930s, history is never as clear-cut and simple as a diffusionist approach might suggest. Ideas circulated in many directions at once, for one of the moving forces in popularizing chicken and waffles emanated not from the catfish houses along the Schuylkill River but from the iron foundry of Erie, Pennsylvania’s Griswold Manufacturing Company. This company made and sold high-quality cast-iron kitchen utensils, among them the 1908 American Waffle Iron.
The owners were well aware of the popularity of chicken-and-waffle dinners. Griswold’s publicists made the following claim in an advertising campaign promoting the new invention in the March 1909 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal: “You can attend a chicken and waffle supper right at home any time you have the notion if you are the owner of a Griswold’s American Waffle Iron.” If there were any doubt about the effortless manner in which chicken and waffles could be incorporated into home cooking, the firm issued a booklet called Laying and Serving the Table and prepared by Boston Cooking School’s Janet McKenzie. Miss McKenzie was one of the early advocates of chicken and waffles as a dish worthy of the attention of home economists if for no other reasons than the gravy could use up leftovers or even canned meat and the waffles could be made with baking powder instead of eggs.
This low-cost approach takes us down a different path from old-time Pennsylvania Dutch saffron waffles that tasted of the homemade butter used to oil the irons, or the fragrance of Berks County-style sweet potato waffles covered copiously with sautéed smoked duck. McKenzie set the stage of the onslaught of electric waffle irons in the 1920s and doubtless helped spread the popularity of the dish into other parts of the country. Today the situation is quite different: the chicken-and-waffle palaces faded with the passing of the old country inns. The culinary tradition has shifted to churches, fire halls, and Masonic temples, and now even truck stops and diners serve this dish, or one of its many variations, all across the Keystone State. Indeed, chicken and waffles can now be found in just about every state of the Union.
Catfish Gravy and Dried Corn Waffles
This variation on old-fashioined tomato gravy was one of several catfish recipes served at the Wild Cat Falls Inn along the Susquehanna River during the early 1900s. The inn also specialized in snapping turtle over waffles, crayfish over waffles, and duck over waffles. Serve with pepper hash and a side of three fried oysters during cold weather or three large fried clams during the summer.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 pound catfish fillets
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup minced onion or leek
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 2 cups chopped vine-ripe tomatoes
- ½ cup fish stock (made with trimmings from the catfish)
- 2 tablespoons chopped celery leaves (from the inner stems)
- 1½ cups whole milk
- 1 to 2 tablespoons small capers, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or to taste
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped sweet basil
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large saute pan. Dry the fillets with paper towels and dust them with one tablespoon of flour, then brown lightly on both sides (about 5 minutes). Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining butter and flour and cook vigorously, scraping the pan to deglaze it so that a light brown roux develops. Add the onion and garlic and cover. Sweat about 3 minutes or until the onions are soft and turning color, then add the tomatoes and fish stock. Cover again and simmer until the tomatoes are well cooked (about 8 minutes). Chop the fish and add it to the tomatoes along with the celery, milk, and capers. Simmer gently until the mixture thickens, then season with hot pepper (optional). Add the cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot over crispy dried corn waffles, garnishing each dish generously with chopped sweet basil.
Variation: An alternative method was to serve a lightly browned fillet of catfish on top of each serving of waffles, then pour the catfish gravy over it. The catfish gravy is also excellent served over boiled new potatoes.
Dried Corn Waffles
- 1 cup dried sweet corn
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil
- 4 large eggs, separated
- 1½ cups pastry flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
Put the dried corn in a deep work bowl and cover with 2 cups boiling water. Let the corn infuse for 2 to 3 hours until completely soft. Puree the corn and excess liquid in a blender or food processor with the buttermilk and melted butter to form a thick, smooth batter. Beat the egg yolks until lemon color and frothy, then fold them into the batter. Pour this into a work bowl.
In a separate work bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt twice, then sift the flour mixture into the batter. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then fold them into the batter. Let the batter rest for 5 minutes. While it is resting, heat the waffle iron.
Follow the instructions accompanying your waffle iron concerning how much batter will be required for each waffle. Since this batter is on the heavy side, make the waffles in small batches and cook slightly longer than normal (as much as 6 minutes). Once the waffle iron is ready, add the batter in half-cup increments, spreading it evenly with a spatula. Close the lid and cook until crisp and golden brown. Serve piping hot with the catfish gravy above.
Note: If your waffle iron bakes these waffles overly moist, finish them in an oven preheated to 350˚ for about 8 minutes or until crispy.
Chicken Gravy and Ham Waffles
This recipe follows fairly closely a similar recipe used at the Water Gate Inn in Washington, D.C. The restaurant served a house specialty called “Mennonite Chicken,” which was chicken stewed in sour cream; this often doubled as gravy for waffles. Marjorie Hendricks (the restaurant owner) was not reluctant to introduce wine into her recipes since her Normandy Farm restaurant in Rockfille, Maryland, used the grape abundantly in her French-style dishes. She understood that the best of old-time Dutch cooking, a la Kuechler’s Roost, also made use of local wines, and a good Pennsylvania wine is one of the defining features of this dish. The wine should be a little on the fruity side, such as a Gewürztraminer or a Riesling.
- 1½ pounds frying chicken, preferably 2 boneless breasts
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 ounces country slab bacon, diced very small
- 1 cup diced cooked ham
- 1 cup chopped onion or leek
- 1 cup fresh morels or other wild mushrooms, sliced or quartered depending on size
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup fruity white Pennsylvania wine
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 cup hot milk or heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon each of minced parsley and minced fresh thyme as garnish
Remove the skin and fat from the chicken and set aside (see note). Divide the breasts into 3 or 4 pieces. Heat the butter and bacon in a large, heavy saute pan. Once the bacon is rendered (about 3 minutes) add the chicken and brown evenly over medium-high heat. Cover and reduce to low heat and simmer 25 to 30 minutes or until the meat is thoroughly cooked. Remove the bacon and chicken. Add the bacon to the diced ham and chop the chicken into small, bean-size pieces. Combine with the ham and bacon and set aside.
Add to the pan the onion and leek as well as the mushrooms, dusting them with the flour. Cover and sweat for 2 minutes, then add the wine. Boil briskly to deglaze the pan, then reduce the heat. Add the chopped chicken mixture, then add the sour cream and milk. Stir to thicken. Adjust seasonings and add herbs. Serve immediately over hot waffles. Add more milk or hot chicken stock if you want the gravy to be extra runny.
Make the waffles ahead of the chicken and keep them warm in the oven heated to 200°. Serve with side dishes of red cabbage and stewed celery.
- 4 large eggs, separated
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil
- 1 cup finely ground cooked ham
- 1¾ cups pastry flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
Beat the egg yolks until lemon color and frothy, then combine this with the buttermilk or vegetable oil. Fold in the ground ham.
In a separate work bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt twice, then sift this into the batter. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then fold them gently into the batter. Let the batter rest 5 minutes. While it is resting, heat the waffle iron.
Follow the instructions accompanying your waffle iron concerning how much batter will be required for each waffle. Once the waffle iron is ready, add the batter in half-cup increments, spreading it evenly with a spatula. Close the lid and cook until crisp and golden brown (5 to 6 minutes). Serve piping hot with the chicken gravy above.
This is an excerpt adapted from As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine, available now from University of Pennsylvania Press.