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