History on a plate: The Harlem heritage of chicken and waffles

What's sweet, savory, salty, and crunchy all in one bite and perfect any time of day? Learn the Harlem-based history of chicken and waffles.

When I was a young boy, my aunt Lucille spoiled me with all sorts of treats, and as I got older, she decided to take me to some of her favorite spots to eat. 

We got on the No. 4 train in the Bronx and headed into Manhattan. I had no idea I would eat at an iconic restaurant, and didn’t know its history until years later. 

My aunt said we were going to Wells. I had heard of Wells, which was on Seventh Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets, because I went to the old High School of Music and Art that was roughly a mile away. I had never made it to Wells because I went to work right after school.

Historians credit Wells, also known as Wells Restaurant or Wells Super Club, for popularizing chicken and waffles, the dish I had there so many years ago.

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Each year, we celebrate Black History Month, which recognizes the accomplishments and contributions of Black people. Through food, we can take these lessons one step further. 

All of the foods Black people love — from mac and cheese to potato salad to sweet potatoes — have roots in other cultures. Exploring those commonalities can help us learn a little more about each other. In essence, these foods can help bring us together.

PBS, in its History of Chicken and Waffles, notes that in the 1600s, cooks in Pennsylvania Dutch County placed pulled chicken and gravy over waffles to create a hearty meal. That’s nice, but I’m sorry; that ain’t chicken and waffles. No sir.

Wells opened in 1938 and quickly became a late-night hot spot for jazz musicians seeking an after-hours meal. Several stories, including the one on PBS, say owner Joe Wells paired some of his leftover fried chicken with a sweet waffle to serve his hungry patrons. Wells closed in 1982, but history remembers it as the birthplace of the modern chicken and waffle. 

What’s so appealing about that combination? You get sweet, savory, salty, and crunchy all in one bite. It’s a really filling dish, and it’s economical since making waffle batter and buying chicken remain affordable, even in today’s inflationary age.

You can use any type of waffle, but I prefer Belgian waffles because they’re lighter. A standard waffle maker that makes the square versions will have more crunch. And no, don’t use frozen waffles. That would be like coming to Sunday supper with store-bought potato salad.

I must admit, I cheat when making waffles because I use my standard pancake recipe. It works just fine. If you want a crispier waffle, just add two more tablespoons of butter and leave it in the waffle iron a little longer.

Chicken is the real key here. You can use any part of the bird you want, though I prefer chicken thighs and their rich taste that compliments the waffle and whatever syrup or topping you add. In the recipe below,  I don’t use syrup because I find it too sweet. Instead, I make apples with bourbon and cream. The juice from the apples takes the place of the syrup, and the cream provides a light topping.

To get the most tender chicken, soak it in buttermilk overnight. The buttermilk acts as a natural tenderizer. 

Chicken and Waffles with Bourbon Apples and Cream

Makes four large servings 

FOR THE CHICKEN

Four large boneless chicken thighs (roughly 1.5 pounds)

1 tablespoon of yellow mustard (optional)

3 tablespoons rib or your favorite rub, in all (store-bought is OK)

1.5 cups of buttermilk

Two cups of flour 

FOR THE BOURBON APPLES

4 tablespoons butter 

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon 

1 tablespoon vanilla

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 large apple, cored, peeled, sliced (I like Fuji, but you can use whatever you like)

FOR THE CREAM

8 ounces of heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon sugar

FOR THE WAFFLES

Use this pancake batter recipe

  1. MARINATE AND COOK THE CHICKEN

Place the chicken thighs in a bowl, add the mustard (optional) and rub, and coat the chicken. Pour in the buttermilk, cover, and let marinate at least 3 hours up to overnight. 

The next morning, add the flour to a bowl. Shake off the excess buttermilk from the chicken thighs and dredge the chicken in flour, one piece at a time, then place on a wire rack (See note below). Let the chicken rest on the rack for 15 minutes, so the coasting adheres to the meat. 

Bring oil in a frying pan to 350 degrees and gently add the chicken, one piece at a time. Being careful to avoid splattering. Cook until golden and done, about eight minutes per side, or until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Place the chicken on a plate with paper towels to drain excess oil.

(NOTE: I do a double dredge, meaning I do the dredging process a second time for an extra crispy coasting, but that’s optional)  

  1. MAKE THE APPLES

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, add the butter and let it melt. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla and mix. Then add the sliced apples to the pan and cook for about 8 minutes until the flavors come together and the apples start to wilt (but still have a nice firm, texture). Remove from the heat. 

  1. MAKE THE CREAM

Pour the cream and sugar into a bowl and, using a hand mixer, beat until stiff peaks form 

  1. MAKE THE WAFFLE (USING THIS RECIPE)
  1. ASSEMBLE THE WAFFLE

Place the waffle on a plate and one chicken thigh in the middle of the waffle, Take ¼ of the apple mixture, including juice, from the pan, and spoon over the chicken. Add a generous dollop of cream over the chicken and serve.


Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano is a veteran journalist who loves to cook and write about food. He’s the former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror, and a Fulbright Fellow.  


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