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

“No one knows chicken like Roscoe’s,” its website boasts. But Roscoe’s acknowledges its debt to Wells, which grew out of the Harlem late-night speakeasy tradition. Redding, a Harlem native, has carried on that tradition in Harlem (Amy Ruth’s, now under new ownership) and Atlantic City, N.J. (Redding’s, which opened last year). “There’s nothing new about chicken and waffles,” he tells The Root. Back in the day, the jazz clubs would close around 2 a.m. and Joseph T. Wells would serve his clientele “a combination of dinner and breakfast, chicken and waffles until the wee hours of the morning,” Redding says, “actually from about midnight until about 10 in the morning.”

According to Michael Henry Adams, an author and historian, the pairing of chicken as we know it — fried, smothered, stewed, hashed, whatever — with waffles is Southern in origin but was not limited to the South or to blacks after the late 19th century. During the flapper era, he told me, wealthy whites in New York and Newport, R.I., featured black entertainers and food such as chicken and waffles at some of their soirees.

And while blacks of all classes ate fried chicken, it was a Sunday or special-occasion treat for the less well-off. After a night on the town, he said, people — particularly whites who could afford chicken and waffles any day of the week — were attracted as much by the cachet as by the cuisine. Adams said he would not be surprised if he learned that other hot spots, like the Cotton Club and Small’s Paradise, also served chicken and waffles. But Wells claimed to be the home of the original. And he who speaks loudest, well …

Roscoe’s, which opened in 1975, caught the Hollywood imagination after famous friends of the proprietor, including Natalie Cole, talked it up in public appearances. As one writer, Jonathan Kauffman, said in an article in the East Bay Express in 2004: “Roscoe’s made chicken and waffles famous in a way that Wells never did, and in the past decade the combination has slowly spread across America.” Gladys Knight, who recalls eating at Wells, is a co-owner of a chicken-and-waffles joint in Atlanta.

People who like their fried chicken will swear by a particular restaurant or storefront or mobile-food cart. But IHOP’s Pendergrass is too diplomatic to enter the fray. “I think we can certainly claim that we have the best pancakes out there, and our guests who know and love us should come in and decide for themselves whether our fried chicken is the best. We certainly have a wonderful waffle that, you know, if they love us for our pancakes, they should certainly try our waffles and certainly try our chicken.”

E.R. Shipp is a regular contributor to The Root.

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