The artistic and cultural explosion of the 1920’s and 30’s known as The Harlem Renaissance, also known as one of the most socially alive and creatively conscious eras of African-American history, ignited a mighty wave of Black literary, musical and visual artistic expression introducing us to Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, jazz, tap dancing and yes, even chicken and waffles. The Pennsylvania Dutch already had their own version, which consisted of a waffle topped with pulled stewed chicken and covered with gravy, but the chicken and waffles dish that emerged in 1938 in Harlem was nothing like that. This unusual pairing consisted of well-seasoned fried chicken with a light, crispy waffle and came about almost as a fluke.
During the Harlem Renaissance,the music scene was hot and heavy. Musicians like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller were playing to standing room-only audiences at a number of well-known uptown venues like The Cotton Club and The Savoy Ballroom. After a late night set these hungry musicians would head out on Lenox Avenue or 135th Street looking for a place to eat, but most spots typically stopped serving dinner at 11pm—a full hour before most jazz sets concluded. Wells Supper Club on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard began to offer late night dinner service for these musicians and that after-midnight, pre-dawn meal was chicken and waffles. The unusual combination of savory and sweet; soft and crunchy was an immediate hit and a quick fix for Joseph T. Wells, the owner of the popular after-hours eatery. There would always be leftover fried chicken from dinner service that just went to waste, so serving chicken and waffles not only boosted sales but got rid of leftovers! Soon after, other restaurants, like Tillie’s Chicken Shack began offering the dish all day.
Today restaurants across the country serve chicken and waffles and quite a few have become famous for their versions. Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles is legendary and I do my part to keep the specialty alive in Harlem; Ginny’s Supper Club serves a version that features chicken liver butter and bourbon maple syrup. Come by, try it and see just what Black History tastes like.
Click here for my recipe for Coconut Chicken and Waffles.