My last trip out of town had many high points. We got to visit one of our sons, we got to attend the Oktoberfest put on by his parish church, and we stayed in a hotel that featured free waffles. And I love waffles. I love our son more, of course – but there have been days . . . .
Perhaps my waffle-love dates to my childhood. I have shared on more than one occasion that my mother derived more enjoyment (and was often better at) cleaning up in the mess in the kitchen than making the food that made the mess. There was, however, one exception – waffles.
A good recipe is key, of course, and she had one that traced its lineage to my Aunt Norma, and so probably dates to at least the early 1950’s. It was fairly labor-intensive as breakfast recipes go, and involved the beating and folding-in of egg whites for a really fluffy batter. Any weekend or holiday morning Mom got the urge to make waffles was a good morning.
I have Mom’s recipe today (in her own handwriting on the original recipe card, which adds to the enjoyment) and have made them a handful of times during my adult life. But then along came the big bags of just-add-water pancake mix that was a much simpler proposition – with the side benefit of faster turnaround time for shoveling griddle cakes out to hungry kids. And when waffles were on someone’s mind, the same stuff came with waffle directions and were a functional substitute – with a little added sugar, anyway.
Waffles are almost never my go-to when getting breakfast out because they are a losing value proposition on any breakfast menu. Most breakfast-all-day restaurants will load you up with eggs, bacon or sausage, and a plate of pancakes for right about the same price they charge for a single, naked waffle. By the time you add some eggs and a side of your favorite cured breakfast meat you could have almost bought another entire meal. At that point, waffle-love succumbs to value-love, and I stare wistfully at the table of anyone who throws the budget to the winds and opts for the waffle.
I recall reading one time about the beginnings of the Waffle House chain of little modern day diners situated mostly at exits from interstate highways. The owner was decided to christen the place with the name of the highest-priced item on the menu. And, so, Waffle House. I suddenly feel so manipulated.
Do you remember the first time you went to a hotel and were greeted by one of those big, heavy-duty flipover waffle irons as part of the “complementary breakfast”? Oh boy, I certainly do. It is the one thing I look forward to on almost any hotel stay. Those free waffles are often the only genuinely good part of the buffet, that often includes sausage that tastes like, well, I’m not sure, or instant scrambled eggs that have gotten crispy from too much time spent in the steam table.
If you can avoid the 9-year-old who insists on making two waffles for each member of the family (and who over-pours on the syrup so that it drizzles the floor as he carries the flimsy plates, the free hotel waffle is a great thing. Well, except for the little rock-hard pieces of individually foil-wrapped butter that are such a pain to open and spread before pouring syrup. Life can be so hard.
A little research indicates that the waffle goes back to, well, nobody really knows because medieval advertising was just not very good. But by 1567, waffles were common enough to show up in art. Could this painting depict an early chain of European inns that promoted business by promising free morning meals? Northern European areas of Germany, France and (of course) Belgium seem to have been Waffle Central. Belgium, in particular, developed the Liege waffle into a kind of street food, which was made from a variation on a brioche bread dough and pearl sugar that would caramelize for a sweet, crispy exterior. But what we think of as the Belgian Waffle is more related to another early variety – called the Brussels Waffle, that was fluffier and made with deeper indentations. Those were popularized in the US at a couple of expositions, most notably the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Dusted with confectioner’s sugar and topped with strawberries and whipped cream, they were more of an any-time-of-day treat than a by-then traditional American breakfast item.
By the way, I also discivered that General Electric sold the first commercial waffle irons in 1918, and they were surely in nearly every middle class American home kitchen by the end of WWII. And before that, Henrietta Homemaker may have owned a waffle iron that sat atop a stove burner.
And did you know that the Eggo frozen waffle dates to 1953? Frank Dorsa had been making a waffle mix for restaurants since the 1930s, and figured out how to bake and freeze waffles for retail sale. I never really considered Eggo waffles as real waffles. Until a package shows up in my freezer and I empty it (and fill myself) with gusto. OK, gusto and waffles.
Waffle shape is one of those things that creates disagreement among civilized people. I am a round waffle person. Waffles are just supposed to be round, that’s all.
There are, of course, seriously misinformed people who think waffles should be square. And they should be, if you are a company making frozen waffles or electric waffle irons and need an efficient shape for filling boxes. Or if you have multiple hungry children and need to fill out those corners to feed them faster. But all it takes is one look back at that European innkeeper/vendor from 1567 and there you are. Waffles. Round.
There has also been a recent effort to incorporate waffles into savory non-breakfast food. Think chicken & waffles. I can get behind this trend, as anything that promotes our friend the waffle is OK with me. But I am onto them – how can a restaurant offer a chicken and waffles dish at such a reasonable price compared with the rest of the menu, but price them on a breakfast menu like they are made with gold-flecked batter? Are the most efficient people in the kitchen not up early enough in the morning? This goes counter to my intuition, so we will have to investigate this further.
And why is someone who can’t make up his mind said to waffle? Waffles don’t flip (like pancakes) and there are plenty of other foods that look the same from either side (like, well, almost everything). Yet, we don’t describe an indecisive person as steaking or breading. This is an important question and we deserve answers.
So, back to waffles. Actually, that is a good idea. Maybe it is time for some single-minded and extremely decisive waffling. Which will include buttering, syruping and, of course, enjoying.