Some food combinations are a no-brainer. Bacon and eggs, balsamic vinegar on strawberries and booze with tomato juice, for example.
Others are a bit more curious and sometimes downright strange. Wars have been fought around water coolers nationwide about pineapple on pizza, ketchup on hot dogs and cinnamon rolls with chili.
But what about fried chicken served over a warm, pillowy waffle and topped off with a sticky-sweet drizzle of maple syrup?
Until recently, it was a tough dish for diners to find in Lincoln. But a few restaurants around town have begun to adopt this culinary icon that originated in America’s Deep South states.
“This is a staple of every restaurant in the South,” said Slim Chickens franchisee and South Carolina native Bill Hooks. “This is it. It gives you that homey feeling of southern comfort food.”
Slim Chickens, the Arkansas-born fried chicken chain, offers chicken tenders, fried or grilled, laid out in a row over a buttermilk waffle in various locations around town. Hooks said customers are often curious about the dish and sometimes hesitant to give it a try, but often end up surprised by the flavor combination.
“People usually think it’s weird at first, but I always ask if they like waffles and if they like chicken,” Hook said. “It’s always a yes. And once you get the whole sweet and salty combination, it’s an amazing experience.”
Historians mostly agree that the American concept of fried chicken finds its origins in Scotland, unseasoned and fried in lard, and in West Africa where the birds were seasoned and fried in palm oil.
America’s waffle roots are also documented in detail, beginning as a novel delicacy for the country’s gentry, who threw parties dedicated to showing off their now-heavy and archaic waffle irons. Here’s how food studies researcher Jeffrey Rubel described them:
“It was Thomas Jefferson who popularized waffles as an American upper-class food when he brought a waffle iron with ‘goose handles’ back to the United States from France in 1789…
“Jefferson hosted ‘waffle frolics’ at his plantation, a trend that spread across the upper echelons of the young United States. … At a waffle frolic, guests would make and eat their own waffles, which constituted the party’s entertainment, thus the American waffle frolic is an early example of how food preparation was entrusted to the consumer rather than limited to the servants in the kitchen.”
The origins of chicken and waffles as a combination are contested and controversial. Some historians point to the Pennsylvania Dutch colonists as the dish’s innovators, who served waffles alongside fried chicken and gravy.
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But many of its stories, either the stuff of myth or passed down from word of mouth, are ingrained in African-American history.
The slave trade put African slaves in the kitchens of many plantation owners, and fried chicken as well as waffles became commonplace dishes throughout the southern states prior to the Civil War.
During the 1840s, one establishment in Springfield, Missouri called Warriner’s Tavern became renowned for its broiled chicken and waffles meal. As detailed in the Springfield Homestead newspaper in 1907, the owners, Jeremy and his wife Phoebe Warriner, hired freed and runaway plantation cooks to prepare food for their patrons, who would bring their experience and memorized recipes into the kitchen.
Eventually, fried chicken and waffles would become commonplace in hotels and taverns throughout the United States, spreading from the southern states up into urban northern areas like New York City. The dish would become popular in jazz clubs in Harlem during the 1930s, when patrons would arrive for the music in the afternoon and develop an appetite into the late evening.
“People would come it at a time when it was not time for breakfast nor dinner, but time for both,” said Rubel. “They combined both and served fried chicken and waffles. It’s apocryphal that that is the origin, but it exemplifies how chicken and waffles are closely linked with African American history.”
Along with being delicious, Hooks said the dish highly customizable. He said he’s seen people drown it in maple syrup, eat it dry and even add hot sauce to the mix.
“Everybody’s got a hack for their chicken and waffles,” he said. “It’s one of those things that makes it unique.”
And if you’re looking to try this uniquely American dish for yourself?
“You have to nail the chicken,” Hook said. “The waffle part is easy. If you nail the chicken, it’s a home run.”