What’s Cooking Wednesday: National Waffle Day

Want a waffle with that earthshake?

All Virginia earthquake jokes aside, today is a momentous day indeed. On this day in 1869, Dutch American Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, New York, received a U.S. patent for the first waffle iron. Described as simply a “device to bake waffles,” the waffle iron was heated over a coal stove, and batter was poured on the griddle. Then the cover was shut, and after a few minutes, the iron was flipped over to cook the other side of the waffle. Breakfast would never quite be the same.

By the 1930s, the honeycombed griddle was a standard appliance in American kitchens, thanks to General Electric’s invention of the electric waffle iron. Responding to the demand, the Dorsa brothers created an easy waffle mix in the mid-1930s that would eventually become the frozen waffle brand Eggo. Belgian waffles—thick, fluffy waffles dressed with strawberries and whipped cream—were an immediate hit with Americans when Maurice Vermersch debuted his wife’s waffle recipe at the 1964 World’s Fair in Chicago. Today, waffles are a ubiquitous item that can be found in the frozen foods section of grocery stores and on breakfast menus everywhere.

But waffles of all sorts have been around far longer than 1964 or 1930—or even 1869.

Food history suggests that the earliest form of the waffle occurred thousands of years ago in ancient Greece. The obleios were flat cakes cooked between two metal plates and generally eaten savory with herbs and cheese.

From Greece, the waffle made its way throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. At some point in the 1200s, a craftsman created hot plates with a griddle pattern to make cakes with the honeycomb marks that we are familiar with today.  Waffles were vended around churches due to their resemblance to communion wafers and eventually traveled to the New World in 1620 with the Pilgrims, who’d picked it up from the Dutch. Rumor has it that the waffle iron Thomas Jefferson brought from France sparked a trend in “waffle frolics”—that is, waffle parties! From then on, waffles were a popular pastry that Americans ate either sweet (maple syrup, chocolate sauce, fruit) or savory (kidney stew, fried chicken).

Here on Pieces of History, we’re celebrating National Waffle Day (the anniversary of Swarthout’s patent) by sharing a recipe from our holdings: JFK’s favorite waffle recipe.

Senator John F. Kennedy's favorite waffle recipe. (Kennedy Library, ARC 193739)

I’m not much of a cobbler, a baker, or Belgian waffle maker, but the combination of ingredients looked fairly promising. We contacted the archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for more information. Did JFK really love his waffles? And does this recipe produce especially tasty waffles?

“This was a standard response sent out by the White House to inquirers,” explained Stephen Plotkin, reference archivist at JFK Library. “It probably was a favorite, but Kennedy was not much of a trencherman, so I’m never sure what that really means. Personally, the only waffles I will eat are the ones my wife makes,” he added, regarding the recipe.

In the absence of Presidential waffle anecdotes, here’s one last waffle fact: In 1971, Olympic track coach Bill Bowerman experimented with his wife’s waffle iron to create a new rubber sole for footwear that would grip but be lightweight. The success of his “Waffle Iron” shoes helped his fledgling athletic footwear enterprise become global giant Nike, Inc.

From flat cakes to footwear—who would’ve thought?

All this talk has us wanting to have our own waffle frolic! How do you like to make or eat your waffles?

3 thoughts on “What’s Cooking Wednesday: National Waffle Day

  1. The Belgian Village and World’s Fair of 1964 was in New York, not Chicago. I have photographs that show the village, although sadly no waffles. Chicago’s fairs were in 1892 and 1933.

    1. You are right! Sorry about that; I recently moved from Chicago, and I’m afraid I have the Windy City on the brain. Yes, the World’s Fair of 1964 was in New York, not Chicago!

  2. You may want to look at Nicoline Van Der Sijs’ Cookies, Coleslaw, and Sloops (2009), p. 143-144 for some additional background on “Wafel-frolics” in mid-18th century America – around the time of Jefferson’s birth. And while the Pilgrims may have picked up on the habit from the Dutch, the Dutch themselves brought the delicious treats to New Netherland as well.

    From: http://historyreadings.com/newyork/coldays/110.html
    William Livingstone, when he was twenty-one years old, wrote in 1744 of a “waffle-frolic,” which was an amusement then in vogue:—

    “We had the wafel-frolic at Miss Walton’s talked of before your departure. The feast as usual was preceded by cards, and the company so numerous that they filled two tables; after a few games, a magnificent supper appeared in grand order and decorum, but for my own part I was not a little grieved that so luxurious a feast should come under the name of a wafel-frolic, because if this be the case I must expect but a few wafel-frolics for the future; the frolic was closed up with ten sunburnt virgins lately come from Columbus’s Newfoundland, besides a play of my own invention which I have not room enough to describe at present. However, kissing constitutes a great part of its entertainment.”

    From: http://www.albanyinstitute.org/Education/archive/dutch/dutch.newworld.foodways.htm
    “As further evidence that Dutch foodways were largely preserved in the New World, records demonstrate that the Dutch West India Company supplied settlers in New Netherland with the kitchen tools that they had typically used at home, including frying pans for pancakes and waffle irons for waffles and wafers.”

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