In the early 19th century Philadelphians enjoyed driving their carriages to the falls on the Schuykill River, the area now known as East Falls, then lined with hotels and restaurants. Eating places there specialized in a favorite dish associated with Philadelphia long before the advent of cheese steaks, namely catfish and waffles. (I’d like to believe that the dish did not include maple syrup.)
Jumping ahead some 50 years, waffles also turn up again in Philadelphia as a featured specialty at a Civil War fundraiser in which an old-time kitchen recreated the food and cooking methods of early German settlers. While gazing at souvenirs such as Benjamin Franklin’s desk and a copper kettle used to make coffee for Revolutionary War soldiers, diners could indulge themselves with buttered waffles with sugar and cinnamon, sausages, or “omelette etwas” (scrambled eggs).
Of course waffles could be found in many restaurants over the past 200 years but they seem to have been especially popular in certain places and times. The “Wild West” was well supplied with waffle kitchens and houses. In mining camps and early settlements in Oregon, California, and Colorado waffles turn up on many menus in the 1880s and 1890s. Only in the West was the term “waffle foundry” used to describe lunch rooms like those in Los Angeles where in 1894 “a large waffle, swimming in melted butter and syrup is served for ten cents.”
Well into the 20th century waffles were familiar fare in boom towns such as Anchorage, Alaska, and the oilfields of Oklahoma. Around 1915 two young women from Seattle decided to seek their fortune in Alaska with the Two Girls Waffle House (pictured). In what was not much more than a shack with a canvas roof they could handle only eight customers at the counter. But after a year they had made enough money from railroad construction workers to build a permanent structure. A similar success story could be told about the two young men who ran the Kansas City Waffle House in Drumright, Oklahoma, before graduating to a bigger enterprise in Tulsa.
Waffles were also a staple of tea rooms in the early 20th century. In places as varied as big city afternoon tea haunts and humble eateries in old New England homesteads, waffles attracted patrons. In 1917 New Yorkers could choose among the Colonia Tea Room, At the Sign of the Green Tea Pot, or the Brown Betty for their waffles fix. In the early 1920s, the fantastical Tam O’Shanter Inn of Los Angeles, then known as Montgomery’s Country Inn (pictured), offered chicken and waffles, a common dish at roadside tea rooms then. Tea room and coffee house magnate Alice Foote MacDougall attributed her successful career to the waffles she served in her Little Coffee House Grand Central Station restaurant in 1919.
As the Wells Manufacturing Company, maker of commercial waffle bakers, advertised in 1948: “Look! There’s a lot of Money in Waffles!”
© Jan Whitaker, 2009