Although waffles seem to be a relatively contemporary food, they have been around
worldwide for thousands of years. The first waffle was made with a heated rock with a
crude cereal paste. An early chef either flipped this with a stick or scrambled it so it was
cooked. As we entered the Iron Age, the hot rocks were replaced with iron plates, one on
top of the other to speed up the cooking.
It would appear the earliest evidence of the manufacture of waffle irons may have come
up from Holland or Germany during the 1300s. These waffle irons consisted of two hinged
plates which were connected to two long handles of wood. It was not unusual to find
elaborate patterns, such as landscapes, religious symbols or heraldic shields imprinted
upon the waffles by plates embossed with these symbols. Some plates had the
honeycomb-grid that we are use to today. The waffle plates (or irons) were then baked
over the fire in the hearth, a method used continuously throughout the Middle Ages by
obloyeurs, people specializing in making a variety of obleios that were often flat or rolled
into coronets (a horned shape).
In 1620, waffles made the voyage from Holland to North America, courtesy of migrating
Dutch pilgrims. Thomas Jefferson brought back a long handled waffle iron from France
and began serving waffles in the White House in the late 1700s. His serving of waffles in
the white House began the fad of “Waffle Frolic” or waffle party. Guests were given their
choice of waffles with toppings of sweets such as maple syrup or molasses or with
savories such as kidney stew.
Waffles were considered equally exotic. They were unusual, expensive, and very time
consuming and because of these qualities, chicken and waffles came to become only a
special occasion meal for the African-American community. This hearty meal gave the
slaves a supply of energy before attending all-day church services.
The religious connection is clear as the pattern and was said to look like interlocking
crosses. They were sold just outside churches during the penitential seasons of the year.
The demand for waflas as they were called, was so great the King Charles IX had to set
up laws to govern how far apart the vendors had to be on the church steps (4 meters).
The bakers competed with the monasteries and the wafers of the monasteries became
the tastier waflas. Waflas were also given the shape or imprint of the Holy day or the King,
Queen or the coat of arms. The Scandinavian style of waffles is cooked in a heart shaped
waffle iron. They celebrate March 25th, "The Annunciation" nine months before Christmas
with waffles. This date is also International Waffle day.
The first U.S. waffle iron was patented on August 24th, 1869, by Cornelius Swarthout of
Troy, New York. Predating electrical models, Swarthout's waffle iron was heated by sitting
it atop wood or gas stoves. A swivel hinge, in a cast iron collar, joined the two iron plates
Thomas J. Stackbeck was instrumental in the development of the first electric waffle iron.
He was responsible for designing the prototype heating elements that were used in
building a thermostat to prevent the problem of frequent overheating. With the assistance
of funding from General Electric, the first fully electric waffle iron was presented to the
nation on July 26th, 1911. Waffles have been consistently popular since then and became
a standard kitchen appliance in the 1930s. Most modern waffle irons are self-contained
tabletop electrical appliances, heated by Stackbeck's electric heating element controlled
by an internal thermostat. Many have a light that goes off when the iron is at the set
temperature and today's modern waffle irons are coated with a non-stick coating to
prevent the waffles from sticking.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Maurice Vermesch experimented with his wife's
recipe for waffles while living in Belgium. He opened two restaurants in Belgium at the
close of the war, and introduced his wife's waffles at the 1960 Brussels Fair. His first
efforts were so successful that Vermersch and four other Belgian families took these
waffles to the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, New York where I first experienced them with
a hefty portion of ice cream. They changed the name of the waffles from "Brussels
Waffles" to "Belgian Waffles" once they got to New York.
Belgian waffles are thicker than American waffles because of the use of yeast and since
yeast is a living organism, a certain amount of time is needed to achieve sufficient growth.
For various reasons, American cooks chose not to use yeast recipes and looked for
newer and faster ways, to get similar results, but in less time and began using baking
powder and baking soda to achieve a rise to their batter.
No matter how you like these cakes of delight, remember that they are an ancient food
that have religious overtones in it's shape and have endless culinary possibilities.