This week’s entry: Waffles
What it’s about: Chicken and waffles, but without the chicken. The ubiquitous diner favorite has a surprisingly long and rich history, dating back nearly a thousand years.
Biggest controversy: Waffles are technically giant communion wafers. The prototypical waffle iron was the fer à hosties in the ninth century, an iron that would emboss wafers with images of the crucifixion. They were popular enough that people started eating them outside of church. Larger irons were made, with more abstract designs, but they were still called wafer irons (moule à oublies). Like communion wafers, the oublies were just flour and water. When soldiers returning from the Crusades brought back new ingredients, people started making more complicated oublies.
Strangest fact: Waffle iron technology has hardly advanced through the centuries. A 14th-century manuscript, Le Ménagier De Paris (The Parisian Household Book), includes the first known waffle recipe (eggs, flour, salt, and wine), but also includes instructions on using the waffle iron itself. “[F]ill, little by little, two irons at a time with as much of the paste as a slice of cheese is large. Then close the iron and cook both sides.” More or less exactly the instructions you’d give today. The recipe even includes a note to coat the iron with oil so the waffles won’t stick.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The article contains the phrase “waffle legislation,” just as we hoped. The laws in question were passed by French monarch Charles IX, who passed a law in 1560 requiring waffle vendors to set up shop no less than 4 yards apart. That they were so thick on the ground is a testament to their popularity, as was the pure silver waffle iron Charles’ grandfather, Francois I, had cast for the palace kitchen, as he was apparently enamored of waffles. Wikipedia also tells us Charles took the throne in December of 1560, so the waffle legislation must have been one of his first orders of business. Now there’s a king with his priorities in order.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Waffles got sweeter because of slavery. As late as the 17th century, the average waffle was sweetened with honey or not at all. Only the aristocracy could afford to sweeten with sugar, as in most parts of Europe, sugar was twice the cost of opium. By the 1700s, increased sugar production from Caribbean plantations cut prices in half, and sugar quickly became a standard waffle ingredient. The cost—that the extra sugar was harvested through brutal labor done by enslaved workers—was largely hidden from the European waffle consumer. In the 1800s, a British naval blockade stopped cane sugar from reaching the continent, but beet sugar had just been developed, dropping prices to a new low.
Also noteworthy: Several countries took turns as the waffle capital before Belgium claimed the title. Germany was the place to get waffles in the 18th century, as cooks experimented with ingredients like coffee and beer yeast. The French upped the ante by using egg whites and over a pound of butter in each batch (the oldest recipe still widely in use). It was the Dutch who took waffles to America, they quickly spread from New Amsterdam, and “wafel frolic” parties were popular in mid-18th century New Jersey.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The page itself might be the best one on Wikipedia, simply because it includes waffle recipes (sans measurements, sadly) for waffle varieties from around the world. But if you’d rather not have to cook waffles yourself, there’s always Eggo, the frozen pre-made waffles introduced by the Dorsa brothers in 1953, which are a favorite of semi-feral telekinetic children everywhere, and still command 73% of the frozen waffle market.
Further down the Wormhole: While waffle recipes vary from place to place and era to era, milk is one of the most consistent ingredients. Cross-species milk drinking “is not uncommon” according to Wikipedia. Of course, no one does it quite like humans, who consume so much animal milk (largely cow and goat) that a full 10% of the world’s inhabitants lives in a dairy farming household. That number of people—three quarters of a billion—is hard to comprehend. In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that, while we can comprehend more than 150 people, we can’t form relationships with more than 150 people. We’ll explore Dunbar’s number next week.