Which Came First: The Chicken or the Waffle?

Another black culinary tradition moves into the mainstream and sets off a debate about its origins.

Courtesy of IHOP
Courtesy of IHOP

Like Christopher Columbus, IHOP has “discovered” something that has been around a very long time. For Columbus, of course, it was the New World. For IHOP, it is that venerable dish of fried chicken and waffles.

The International House of Pancakes is offering “juicy chicken tenders, crispy Belgian waffles. Both delicious on their own, but sometimes, different things can make sweet magic when paired together. Yeah, baby,” a sexy male pitchman says in the television and Internet versions of a ubiquitous ad.

The chain, whose revenues have been rather flat of late, wants to bring more people into its 1,500 restaurants — and it obviously knows a good thing when it tastes it. Jennifer Pendergrass, a spokeswoman, said that IHOP wants to offer its customers — referred to as “guests” — a dining experience that is “new and creative and unique.”

That elicits a hearty laugh from one black restaurateur, Carl Redding. “Black folks have been eating chicken and waffles for years and years and years,” says Chef Redding as he expresses a bit of incredulity at this corporate “discovery.” “Just like the sweet iced tea that McDonald’s tried to take advantage of, IHOP is doing the same thing. Black folks love chicken and waffles, so IHOP wants to serve it, and probably they will make a few billion dollars. So what can we say?”

Pendergrass says that IHOP, capitalizing on the trend toward blending savory and sweet tastes, decided to add the classic fried chicken and waffles to its already well-known menu. “Obviously we were aware that there are a number of independent restaurants on the West Coast and the East Coast that have made this dish famous in their markets.” IHOP’s twist is to extend this culinary experience to all 50 states — at least until May 1.

Some people insist that Roscoe’s in Los Angeles is the commercial creator of this dish, but foodies — this writer and Gladys Knight included — give credit where it’s due: Wells Supper Club, which lasted — with a brief interruption here and there and a name change to Wells Famous Home of Chicken and Waffles — from 1938 to 1999. Wells had jazz greats, including the late Dr. Billy Taylor, swingin’ and eatin’ there, and near the end of its run, it even featured swing bands and dancers.

If not as the actual backdrop for key cinematic scenes, Roscoe’s has made cameo appearances in a number of movies and has been given its props on rap records. It has attracted just about everyone, from professional athletes to the late comedian Redd Foxx to contemporary performers like Snoop Dogg and Will Smith. Even Larry King has been seen at Roscoe’s.