Harlem’s late-night jazz revelers feeding on fried chicken from the previous evening’s dinner service, and waffles meant for the impending morning’s breakfast is the most popular theory for the invention of chicken and waffles. With the 1930s being so highly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and rhythmic stylings of musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, the sweet and savory dish has gained a rather jazzy reputation as the quintessential symbol of soul food.
However, this narrative barely scratches the surface.
A culinary practice of eating meat with bread to sop its juices was observed by Germans long before they made their way to America. The German immigrants, often referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought this tradition with them and used the dish as a centerpiece to formal events and higher-class gatherings.
Eventually, the protein-carb combo landed in the South, where slaves would be taught to plate meals in the same manner and serve them to the household.
The concept of chicken and waffles took on multiple evolutions before becoming popularized during Harlem’s cultural awakening of the ‘20s and ‘30s. A concentration on black literature, scholarship, music, dance, and fashion made way for a widespread consciousness in the efforts of reclaiming Afro-identity, away from white stereotypes.
Harlem’s urban nightlife was booming, and a plate of chicken and waffles was its favorite after-party bite.
Recent decades have witnessed a resurrection of the dish’s popularity and can now be found in virtually every city in America — including Tucson.
The brainchild of renowned Tucson chef, Travis Gary Peters, has been serving Southern-style fare with a rock 'n roll flair since 2011. The team’s imaginative takes on comfort food classics such as gumbo, catfish, and pulled pork sandwiches have earned a number of accolades and a permanent spot on the “Favorite Restaurants” list of many Tucsonans.
Proof of their culinary creativity is evident in their mesquite-smoked, cinnamon-rubbed chicken which is served on an elote waffle and a side of vanilla butter. It is then topped off with cracked black pepper, finishing the Southern and Sonoran flavor fusion that only The Parish could pull off.
For more information, visit theparishtucson.com.
Widely known as a nightlife staple of downtown Tucson, the folks at HighWire have gone to great lengths to revamp their menu offerings with a refreshing playfulness to high-quality food. Rather than a one-plate-per-person model, owner Nick Wayne shifted his attention to handheld shareables that taste great and are fun to eat.
Read our September 2022 article "HighWire's new dining room, revamped menu & molecular mixology."
With this approach to dining in mind, they didn’t stop at a plate of waffles topped with chicken. Instead, breaded tenders are sandwiched between two waffles with a spread of bacon jalapeño jam, adding a balanced heat to the sweet and savory mix of the dish. So, don’t fret if your server doesn’t bring you a roll of silverware with your order, just make sure you’re given plenty of napkins.
Those who prefer to eat their chicken and waffles with a knife and fork can still get a more traditional version during HighWire’s brunch hours.
For more information, visit highwiretucson.com.
Living a gluten-free lifestyle has never been easier thanks to Mary Steiger and Susan Fulton of Gourmet Girls. With the mission to provide food that their diners can no longer have, the pair has created a menu that packs on the flavor while skipping the side of gluten guilt.
Gourmet Girls is the only gluten-free option for chicken and waffles available in Tucson. Using Garfava bean flour as the base of their waffle batter, the quick bread is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, complementing their hand-battered strips of white chicken. Those who prefer to lean on the savory side can ask for their Spiced Pumpkin Seed Bacon Waffle in lieu of a regular one.
Guests also have the option to take their Southern meal to the next level of… Southern-ness by asking for a generous lathering of gravy on top.
For more information, visit gourmetgirlsglutenfree.com.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Davis Montham Air Force Base is Janet & Ray’s Caribbean and soul restaurant. Undoubtedly one of Tucson’s most underrated eateries, Janet & Ray’s consistently provides hearty, tastes-like-home cooking in generous serving sizes. Customer favorites include Jerk Chicken, Fried Catfish, and different variations of chicken and waffles.
The menu lists their original chicken and waffle as “plain” but it is anything but. This rendition of the Southern comfort food is simple, but its simplicity is where it shines. Each order comes with a generous helping of two bone-in fried chicken breasts, so tender and juicy that its dark meat falls off the bone. The skin is crisp, flavorful, and is the perfect contrast to their pillowy soft Belgian waffle.
With just a pat of softened butter and syrup on the side, the mix of sweet, salty, crunchy, and soft creates a melodious harmony of flavors and textures. This is what sets Janet and Ray’s chicken and waffles apart from just being “good” to a delicacy.
For more information, follow Janet & Ray's on Facebook.
Last year, the registrar of the National Day Calendar issued October 20 as National Chicken and Waffles Day. Though the source of its genesis has been hotly contested and the exact person who put fried chicken and waffles together can’t be pinned down, its link to poignant points in American history remains consistent.
The trail of European migrants into the Americas, the cultural shaping of African Americans during times of slavery, and the reclaimed sophistication and art in black communities collide on a single plate. Whether you go for the traditional or jazz it up with a creative take on the classic, just remember to keep Harlem on your mind.
Where's your favorite place to get chicken and waffles? Let us know in the comments.
Kim Johnston is a former preschool educator, turned mom, turned foodie with a strong passion for helping small businesses in...