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The snack that's ironed out
Exploring the fascinating links between waffles and technology
Hello, Snackers. We’re back from our break with a special guest post that features a founding father, a delicious breakfast, World’s Fairs, and Mr. James Beard himself.
Jeffrey Rubel writes the excellent newsletter The Curiosity Cabinet, about the history of technology. A few weeks ago, he asked if I’d be interested in running a guest post about waffles and technology. I had never really thought about having guest posts, to be honest, but Jeffrey’s ideas were so good (and so clearly in line with what we do here at Snack Stack) that I was on board right away.
I’m delighted to share this post with you, and I hope you’ll subscribe to his newsletter. — Doug
Picture this: It’s the early 1790s, and you receive an invite from Thomas Jefferson for a party at Monticello. This isn’t an ordinary party. This is a “waffle frolic.” Jefferson recently returned from his stint as ambassador to France, and he’s brought back a few newfangled culinary contraptions, including four goose-handled waffle irons. Now, Jefferson wasn’t the first to frolic—nor the first to use a waffle iron in America—but he threw some Gatsby-like parties, and as their notoriety spread, so did the notoriety of the waffle iron.
The waffle was the party’s entertainment. While guests mingled and drank, they were served hot waffles straight from the iron. The iron, which weighed 10-12 pounds and had three-foot-long handles, was filled with batter and then held over an open flame, given most colonial cooking happened in a hearth. Cooking a waffle this way wasn’t quick or easy; it took nearly ten minutes and required quite a bit of arm strength from the enslaved cooks who prepared Jefferson’s food.
It might sound obvious, but you can’t make a waffle without an iron. The waffle is defined by its technology. This inherent duality has shaped the waffle’s history not only as a breakfast food but also as a snack food, starting with those colonial frolics.
Colonial waffle irons—heavy, solid metal, with long handles—were expensive. Thus, in their early American days, waffles remained a fancy snack food for the upper class. Take Jefferson’s parties as an example: At the party, the waffle iron was a toy as much as a substantive culinary device. Not every American could access an iron, and therefore not every American could eat waffles.
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The waffle’s journey from high society to the everyman rode on the back of technological change. In 1869, Cornelius Swartwout patented the first coal-stove waffle iron. To use the iron, a cook heated it up over a stove, poured batter inside, closed it, flipped it, and waited. Compared to the long-handled iron of Jefferson’s days, it was relatively easy to use—because of the stove, because we’d figured out how to control fire. The hassle with Jefferson’s iron was the need for long handles to stay safe near an open flame, but thanks to the invention of the coal stove in 1833, Swartwout could design an iron that anyone (even those without huge biceps!) could use. It is, in other words, technology all the way down: A food relies on a technology that relies on another technology.
The first electric waffle iron followed quickly behind, entering the market in the early 1900s. However, in its early years, electricity was only found in urban households, so the electric iron’s popularity didn’t surpass that of the stovetop version until more homes were wired to the grid.
Further technological developments including open frames, spring-wired nichrome, and ceramic insulators led to cheaper irons, and with cheaper irons, the waffle became even more accessible. These advances followed on the tails of the Industrial Revolution which, a century earlier, made metal production cheaper and allowed the price of a waffle iron to drop from outlandish in Jefferson’s days to affordable in Swartwout’s era. While the technology became cheaper, the irons became more decorative, often adorned with wooden handles, beautiful metalwork, and ceramic designs. Fancy designs aside, by the 1920s, the waffle and its iron were nearly ubiquitous on breakfast tables across America.
It was a food for everyone, which (perhaps unsurprisingly) upset the snooty. In the words of celebrity chef James Beard: “With the advent of the electric waffle iron, waffles became almost too popular. Many people felt if they mastered waffle batter and had a waffle iron, no extension of their gastronomic repertoire was needed.” For Beard and his better-than-thou culinary philosophy, the waffle lost its flair on its road to everyday America.
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Across the pond in Europe, the waffle’s reputation was changing. At the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium, vendor Walter Cleyman sold Brussels waffles, a traditional Belgian treat. These waffles had deeper indentations than their American counterparts, which Cleyman would fill with whipped cream, fresh fruit, and powdered sugar. At the fair, he sold more than 400,000 waffles. Four years later, in 1962, he brought his waffles to the World’s Fair in Seattle, this time selling over half a million.
As fairgoer Mildred Whiteaker noted: “We took time to late lunch on one of the culinary delights of the Fair, the famous waffles. … There is usually a long line at the ‘waffle bars.’” This new type of waffle was so popular that the El Paso Natural Gas Company incorporated them into their World’s Fair advertisements, which stated “Delicious Belgian waffles, with whipped cream and strawberries, are popular snacks at the Fair. They’re prepared with natural gas, of course.” The Brussels waffle was an icon.
At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, vendor Maurice Vermersch took up the task of selling Brussels waffles, which he decided to call “Bel-Gem Waffles” because he thought he thought Americans wouldn’t be able to locate Brussels on a map nor spell “Belgian.” Once again, the waffles––topped with berries and cream––were a hit.
Following the fair, Vermersch seized the business opportunity. He sold Belgian waffle-making equipment across the United States. This equipment allowed restaurants to make waffles with those distinctively deep pockets. Because of the waffle’s success at the World’s Fairs (and, perhaps, partly because of the exoticism of the deep pockets) Americans came to crave these Belgian-style waffles over the traditional American pocket design. Many 1960s waffle iron patents incorporated deeper pockets and larger squares into their designs, creating a Belgian-style waffle and driving the shallow-pocketed American waffle to near extinction (or at least relegating them to the world of Eggo frozen waffles). Culinary preference defined technological design, and in turn, the World’s Fair snack food became the go-to American waffle. The snack became the breakfast.
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At the core of this story is technology. A waffle cannot be made without its iron, so a waffle’s place in society—from the high-class parties of Jefferson to the snack shacks of the World’s Fairs—is shaped by the iron, be it heavy and expensive or electric and deep-pocketed. Because of its cost or difficulty of use, the iron holds the power to define who can (and who cannot) enjoy a waffle.
Even the simplest technologies––such as the lowly waffle iron–– hold the power to define how we cook and what we snack on. Our snacks are technological, even if you don’t realize it as you’re piling strawberries, whipped cream, and maple syrup on your Belgian waffles.
This post is adapted from Jeffrey Rubel’s article “The Waffle and its Iron in America,” published in Petit Propos Culinaire (April 2016).
Jeffrey Rubel is an educator and historian. Currently, he is the corporate strategy director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and in prior lives, he was a high school science teacher and an associate consultant at Bain and Company. His research and writing focuses on the history of science and technology in American culture. He has published articles on –– among other topics –– the history of fish preservation (The Graduate Journal of Food Studies), the history of removing seeds from fruit (The Oxford Food Symposium), and the human sciences in Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company (History of the Human Sciences). He has a master’s degree in the history of science from The University of Cambridge and a bachelor’s in geosciences from Williams College.
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