Waffles are the cakes that have traveled the world. The griddled, lattice-stamped treats have trekked from Belgium to Canterbury to Seattle and been consumed in establishments ranging from the American diner to the American White House. They have inspired Nike athletic shoes and appeared in television sitcoms. Waffles are the breakfast of champions, presidents and even would-be seducers.
Cornelius Swarthout filed the first U.S. patent for the waffle iron in 1869. Since then the hinged metal griddle that stamps a honeycomb pattern has been an unlikely recipe for success. In the 1950s Frank Dorsa tinkered with the simple device and installed it in a motorized assembly line able to churn out thousands of waffles per hour. Partnered with his brothers, Dorsa froze his waffles and sold them under the name Froffles. The brand was eventually renamed Eggo, and the frozen waffle, heated in a toaster rather than a waffle iron, became a breakfast staple in American homes.
University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, who cofounded Blue Ribbon Sports with runner Phil Knight in 1964 (they put up $500 apiece), got even more creative with a waffle maker. Bowerman’s major breakthrough occurred when he poured rubber into his household waffle iron while developing the design of an athletic shoe. The result was the now-ubiquitous checkered sneaker sole. Blue Ribbon Sports became a runaway success; it is now the athletic corporation Nike. But Bowerman paid a heavy price for his misuse of the kitchen appliance. The fumes from the glue damaged the inventor’s neurological system, partially disabling him.
Civilization has relied on waffle-like concoctions since ancient Greeks baked cakes between two hot metal dishes. Waffles as we know them, however, didn’t come about until the Middle Ages. At the time, the Catholic Church held a monopoly on wafers—flat, fat-free, vegan disks to be consumed while fasting. Bakeries, deciding to compete, plumped the wafer with dairy and eggs, and the waffle was born and for centuries cherished. Then came the harrowing waffle shortage of 2009. It started when inspectors discovered Listeria bacteria in the Eggo brand’s Atlanta facility. Worsening matters, the factory was then flooded by heavy rains. With a depleted stock, Eggo began rationing its products to supermarkets. Satirist Stephen Colbert issued a plea on The Colbert Report for President Barack Obama to “open our strategic waffle reserves.” Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags spread the news of the frozen-waffle famine, and the brand’s famous motto—“Leggo my Eggo”—gained a new relevancy as hoarding shoppers scrambled for supplies. But during those dark times there was, thankfully, recourse: the American diner. In particular, the Waffle House, a Georgia-based truck-stop chain open all night, offers a half a dozen variations.
With seafood hauled fresh from the Pacific, earthy morels foraged from Washington woodlands and a burgeoning wine industry, Seattle is a hub for foodies and chefs. Bravo’s cooking competition Top Chef chose the city as the locale for its 10th season (2012–2013). Even diners have upped their food quality: Skillet Diner, for example, offers kale Caesar salad and sometimes even fennel-crusted rabbit loin—not exactly the usual fare of the greasy spoon.
Seattle’s culinary revolution began in 1962 with the Century 21 World’s Fair. Vendors and restaurants offered cuisine from Mexican to Mongolian. Comedian Bob Hope commented, “Those international restaurants were great. You get heartburn in eight languages.” Many Seattleites remember the event for introducing the Space Needle tower and the monorail elevated train; fewer may recall that it also introduced the Belgian waffle to the U.S. The puffy, deep-gridded, yeast-risen version, created in 1958 for the Brussels World’s Fair, sold like hotcakes in Seattle, in numbers supposedly approaching half a million. Two years later the Belgian waffle’s popularity at the New York World’s Fair cemented its place on the American diner menu. Even Seattle’s Skillet Diner offers waffles—a pork belly and cornmeal version, maple braised.
Diners are as American as jazz and John Wayne. The precursor to the diner popped up in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1858, when a 17-year-old pressman named Walter Scott began selling late-night snacks from a basket. Scott’s business was so successful he stopped printing newspapers, upgraded to a wagon and dedicated himself to sandwich selling. His idea caught on, and food-slinging covered wagons were soon found everywhere and at all hours. These purveyors of cheap eats moved from wagons to trains and then to decommissioned railroad cars and buildings made to look like them. During the Great Depression fancy restaurants closed down because of a dearth of customers, but diners survived, offering simple, quick meals at low prices. Today diners are havens for night-shift workers and the after-hours crowd. The menus are endlessly diverse, offering everything from pies to fries, and the fries even come in various shapes: shoestring, crinkle cut, curly and a checkered form the French call pommes gaufrettes but diners call waffle fries. Lately the culinary world has returned to the roots of the diner; food trucks are all the rage, prowling every American city, in an unknowing tribute to a teenage amateur chef from Rhode Island.
Deep-fried potatoes are irresistible, a dieter’s bane and hot comfort food for many. Canadians have circulated petitions to make poutine—french fries with cheese curds and gravy—the national dish. In 2003 french fries were caught up in the Iraq war debate, when U.S. congressional Republicans had them renamed freedom fries in their cafeterias after France declined to support the invasion. Even so, french fries are most likely Belgian in origin, possibly invented around 1680 as a fried fish substitute for when rivers were frozen and fish were scarce.
In the competitive world of American fast food, the debate about fries often far exceeds how a potato should be cut. In the 2000s, vegetarians were outraged to learn that beef extract was an ingredient in McDonald’s iconic shoestring fries. The Chick-fil-A chain also stirred up tempers when reports surfaced in 2011 that it had donated millions of dollars to antigay causes; protests included same-sex-couple “kiss-ins.” The restaurant’s signature square, lattice-patterned fries became a symbol of bigotry. Lynn Yeldell, founder of the gay and lesbian magazine L Style G Style, based in Austin, Texas, condemned Chick-fil-A but added, “I sure miss my waffle fries.”
English author Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales extols the virtues of waffles for less-than-virtuous purposes: In the Miller’s tale, a love-struck clerk attempts to seduce the wife of a carpenter by sending her “honey-wine, mead and spiced ale, / And waffles from the griddle, piping hot.” In the French region of Lorraine, tradition holds that a married couple’s first kiss should take place over a dish piled with waffles. But nowadays waffles don’t immediately spark images of saucy romance. They’ve been replaced by other tidbits, such as chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream. Boxes of chocolates and ganache-dipped strawberries are Valentine’s Day mainstays, and whipped cream has aroused desire since a dairy-slathered model appeared on the cover of Herb Alpert’s 1965 album Whipped Cream & Other Delights. (A younger generation celebrates a scene in the 1999 film Varsity Blues, in which a beautiful cheerleader tempts the star football player by wearing dollops of whipped cream in place of undergarments.) But there is still hope for the waffle to reenter the realm of the aphrodisiac—the Belgian waffle is typically topped with whipped cream and sliced strawberries, making for a trifecta of tantalizing treats.
In government lingo a “waffler” is not an enthusiast of the breakfast standby but rather a politician whose words lack substance or decisiveness. Derived from the Scottish word waff, meaning “gust of wind,” the term suits the fictional bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a bumbling minor government employee in NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Knope showed her waffling chops early, stonewalling the belligerent crowd at a town meeting with irrelevant historical blather in the show’s second episode.
As it happens, Knope’s favorite food is Belgian waffles smothered in whipped cream. Given her aspiration to be U.S. president, her love of waffles puts her in good company. Thomas Jefferson allegedly brought a waffle iron back to the U.S. from the Netherlands, sparking the fad of “waffle frolics,” which sound more fun than the mere waffle-eating parties they were. President Gerald Ford’s favorite breakfast was waffles, and first lady Michelle Obama has said waffles are very popular in her husband’s White House. Whipped cream, however, does not always ensure political success. Former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, a leader of the charge to impeach President Bill Clinton, suffered damage to his reputation when he was photographed licking whipped cream off a woman’s breasts.