Home » History on a plate: The Harlem heritage of chicken and waffles

History on a plate: The Harlem heritage of chicken and waffles

by The Grio

When I was a young boy, my aunt Lucille spoiled me with all sorts of treats, and as I got older, she decided to take me to some of her favorite spots to eat. 

We got on the No. 4 train in the Bronx and headed into Manhattan. I had no idea I would eat at an iconic restaurant, and didn’t know its history until years later. 

My aunt said we were going to Wells. I had heard of Wells, which was on Seventh Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets, because I went to the old High School of Music and Art that was roughly a mile away. I had never made it to Wells because I went to work right after school.

Historians credit Wells, also known as Wells Restaurant or Wells Super Club, for popularizing chicken and waffles, the dish I had there so many years ago.

Each year, we celebrate Black History Month, which recognizes the accomplishments and contributions of Black people. Through food, we can take these lessons one step further. 

All of the foods Black people love — from mac and cheese to potato salad to sweet potatoes — have roots in other cultures. Exploring those commonalities can help us learn a little more about each other. In essence, these foods can help bring us together.

PBS, in its History of Chicken and Waffles, notes that in the 1600s, cooks in Pennsylvania Dutch County placed pulled chicken and gravy over waffles to create a hearty meal. That’s nice, but I’m sorry; that ain’t chicken and waffles. No sir.

Wells opened in 1938 and quickly became a late-night hot spot for jazz musicians seeking an after-hours meal. Several stories, including the one on PBS, say owner Joe Wells paired some of his leftover fried chicken with a sweet waffle to serve his hungry patrons. Wells closed in 1982, but history remembers it as the birthplace of the modern chicken and waffle. 

What’s so appealing about that combination? You get sweet, savory, salty, and crunchy all in one…

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