Like so many of our contributions to American culture, chicken and waffles is now considered old hat. You can find this dish, which originated with African-Americans, as part of the menu at any pancake chain or a deconstructed dish at an upscale restaurant. But this staple really traces its roots back to Wells’ Restaurant (the original name), opened by James T. Wells in 1938.
“People seem confused and deprived regarding the backstory of a lot of our culinary history,” says Rochelle Brown of Harlem on My Plate, a new short documentary. “There is so much misunderstanding [that] even the average Black person swears Roscoe’s in Los Angeles developed fried chicken and waffles, but it opened decades after Wells’,” explains the filmmaker, whose background includes co-producing (with partner, Sonia Amsted) programming for TBS, Food Network, TV One, Fine Living, BET J, Cooking Channel and Disney.
Wells’, once a popular Harlem spot on Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard), was said to be the go-to after-hours spot for hungry celebrities, musicians and music fans because it featured a crispy, sweet and salty dish which many described as a perfect response to 2:00 a.m. appetites. “Instead of a ‘brunch’ combination of breakfast and lunch, fried chicken and waffles highlighted a heartier dinner and breakfast favorite,” Brown says.
Despite this documented information, many White food historians and cookbook authors are quick to downplay or ignore Wells’ contribution to waffle dishes, considering it an extension of a Pennsylvania Dutch dish featuring creamed chicken and gravy over waffles.
Joe Randall, who owns the Chef Joe Randall Cooking School in Savannah, Georgia, further debunks this Dutch theory.
“I grew up and began my career in Pennsylvania, and I’ve eaten my share of the Pennsylvania Dutch chicken and waffles from the recipes inspired by German Pennsylvania Dutch cooks. And trust me, that dish has nothing to do with the fried chicken and waffles,” Randall offers, adding, “I used to enjoy fried chicken and waffles at Wells’ Restaurant in Harlem—later known as Wells Supper Club and Wells Chicken and Waffles—as much as I could when Mr. Wells was alive. It was such a special place, I even chose it as a surprise to celebrate my sister’s birthday back in the early 1980s, before the restaurant closed in 1982.”
What made the chicken and waffles so appealing?
“The chicken was perfectly seasoned and fried over a waffle crisp enough to stand up to a heavy drizzle of syrup,” assures Randall, who himself has 50 years experience in the hospitality and food service industry.
Convinced now? Good, now let’s get to cooking.
This chicken and waffles recipe is adapted from Southern Homecoming Traditions by Carolyn Quick Tillery, who describes refrigerating the seasoned chicken and onion slices overnight as the “important part” of the dish’s success.
FRIED CHICKEN & WAFFLES
1 fryer (2 1/2 to 3 pounds), cut up
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoons each: garlic powder, black pepper
2 teaspoons seasoned salt
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
Wash chicken, pat dry and set aside. Mix together the onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper and seasoned salt; season the chicken on both sides with this mixture. Toss the chicken and sliced onion together in a large non-reactive bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to fry, heat three inches of shortening to approximately 375 degrees in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add butter to the shortening. Discard the onion; coat the chicken with the flour, shaking off an excess.
Place the chicken in the hot oil, careful not to crowd the pan. Cook, turning as needed, until golden on each side, about 15 minutes. Repeat as necessary. Test for doneness by piercing the thickest part of the chicken with a fork. When done, the juices should run clear.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 eggs, at room temperature, yolks and whites separated
2 cups cold milk
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, melted
Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl, stirring to combine. Set aside. Whisk together the egg yolks milk and butter. Slowly add to the flour mixture, stirring in just until moistened. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form; gently fold into the batter. Bake, according to manufacturer’s direction in an oiled, preheated waffle iron. Serve with butter and cane or maple syrup. Makes eight servings.
Donna Battle Pierce is a food editor and test kitchen director. Her most recent research included trips to explore public and private archives in South Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska and Massachusetts for a book she’s writing about Black cooks, restaurants and recipes. She currently writes, teaches cooking classes and conducts seminars about saving family recipes. Follow her on Twitter@BlackAmerCooks.