With my first paycheck from ‘The Midget’ …to clarify… it was a bar and restaurant in Key West I worked in … I sent for my then … girlfriend, Janet, who arrived a few days later on a Greyhound bus from Ft. Lauderdale where she’d been working as a maid in a dreary hotel. With the remaining pay I found a place that would become a joyous part of our lives, “The Green Parrot”. A bar. The Parrot doesn’t normally offer food, (except for popcorn, which is free, like the excellent live music). But every April, the Green Parrot’s ‘Head Spirit’ John Vagnoni holds a party as part of the infamous Conch Republic Independence Celebration Days. The Green Parrot team sets up chafing dishes on top of plywood board covered pool tables and serves up chicken and waffles. The monies collected go to the Bahama Village Music Program. The pioneering jazz musician giant … who many insist was the co-founder of Bebop … ‘Fats’ Navarro was born in the Bahama Village area of Key West. I think “Fats” would have loved the Chicken and Waffles party.
I co-wrote a cookbook with our son Justin a few years back. It’s our ‘love letter to Key West’. We titled it, “My Key West Kitchen”. In this case the my is for both of us. Justin was born there on a beautiful evening in May. I can still remember the nurse planting his inky foot on his birth certificate. We included our Chicken and Waffles recipe in that book. It’s easy to make and people love it. And wouldn’t a waffle maker look great on your kitchen counter. No? Okay. Maybe the Waffle Houses have fried chicken on their menus now?
The exact origins of this mash-up dish are unknown, although several theories about its origin exist. Soul Food cooks were key to this I am sure. Waffles entered American cuisine in the 1600s with European colonists. The food’s popularity saw a notable boost after 1789 with Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of a waffle iron in France. I wonder if the Waffle House folks know that?
Waffles served with chicken and gravy were noted as a common Sunday dish among the Pennsylvania Dutch by the 1860s. Sounds like a cousin of the dish nicknamed ’S.O.S’. to me. In the early 1800s, resorts outside Philadelphia served waffles with fried catfish. One day I guess the catfish fishermen struck out and a fast thinking chef subbed in fried chicken. It was a lucky shift because it makes perfect sense to hit spicy fried chicken with the traditional waffle partner of sweet maple syrup. The waffles artfully dances with a hot out of the fryer bird.
The late great Southern Chef Bill Neal’s cookbook came into my possession while I was the Chef at Louie’s Backyard (1986 exactly). I’d like to think I had the brains to buy it … but maybe it was a gift. So was Mr. Neal’s way with teaching Southern cooking. At a time when invention in cooking was rife all over the land he held fast to time-honored traditions. I also admired Bill Neal’s sense of humor. He wrote, “First the bird; only a whole, fresh chicken will do. Frozen chicken tastes bloody and turns dark at the bone when fired. If you find yourself in the possession of one, stew it or bury it”.
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2018 Norman Van Aken