National Waffle Day will be celebrated this Saturday, August 24th, yet another unofficial food holiday that continues to gain momentum via social media. In the days prior to insta-everything, we relied on word of mouth for generating pop culture momentum. Today, we turn to #nationalwaffleday for all the waffle news fit to consume. Before you begin scrolling Yelp reviews in your quest for the best syrup smothered waffles, let's take a moment to learn a little bit about early waffles and what the holiday actually commemorates.
Waffles have been traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where flat cakes called Obelios were roasted between two metal plates attached to a long wooden handle, Obelio batters were originally unleavened and unsweetened, more akin to a religious wafer. Over time, the humble batter was enhanced with cinnamon or ginger, honey, butter, and cream. Leavening agents created thicker waffles, and the waffle irons themselves were no longer imprinted with coat of arms, landscapes, or religious symbols, as they had been in the 14th century.
In the 15th century, Dutch waflers (single ‘f’) opted for rectangular waffle iron plates instead of round. Grid patterns were a result of both the forging process and artisan craftsmanship. We have the Dutch to thank for bringing waffles to America where we opted to pair them with maple syrup; at the time, it was a less expensive sweetener than sugar. What began as a humble between meal snack in Europe would later take center stage on breakfast tables throughout America.
As for the seemingly random August date affixed to National Waffle Day, there’s a reason behind it. History tells us that the American inventor, Cornelius Swartwout, received the very first U.S. patent for the waffle iron on August 24, 1869. Fashioning his waffle iron out of two large cast iron plates secured by a hinge, Swartwout’s rudimentary stove-top appliance was a precursor to General Electric’s freestanding waffle iron, introduced in 1918. This relatively small kitchen appliance would forever change Sunday mornings for sleepy-eyed Americans.
I was one of those tired Sunday morning waffle-seekers, fixated by the light on the Sunbeam electric waffle iron, waiting for the red light to indicate that the iron was hot enough to accept the Bisquick batter, and then again, impatient for it to turn green signaling 'done.' Armed with a fork to emancipate the four cross-hatched squares from the iron, it was traditional for a wall of steam to hit you smack in the face upon opening the appliance. It was well worth the wait and the facial because waffles, with their crispy/crunchy edges and deep pockets, were infinitely more fun than pancakes.
The Sunbeam was merely a pre-cursor to the waffle irons I was yet to meet. In my restaurant-owning days, we poured a rich, eggy batter into a cavernous commercial waffle iron, notorious for overworking the electrical service. Its preferred time to short out was at the peak of the brunch rush. The fragrance of butter, vanilla, and bacon was often overshadowed by the hint of something burning; residual batter that had dripped onto the heating element. Praying for brunch service to end and armed with a ginormous oven mitt, I timidly unplugged the damn iron. Years later, the restaurant job that required hotel pans of tiramisu also tethered me to a pizzelle iron with a fondness for electrical fireworks every time I plugged the tired cord in or out of the wall socket.
Recently, on a trip to picturesque Amsterdam, I waited in several long lines in order to secure a very different kind of waffle. The stroopwafel, (Dutch for syrup waffle) is a sandwich composed of two very thin vanilla waffle cookies filled with a dream of dark caramel.
The stroopwafel dates back to 1784, when a humble baker from the town of Gouda created a waffle made from leftover crumbs and spices. It was as unappealing as it sounds, causing the baker to doctor up the cookie by filling it with syrup.
A smaller version of the stroopwafel is now available worldwide, even offered as a snack cookie on certain airlines. There is no comparison between the commercially made cookies and a fresh one hot off the waffle iron, but in a pinch, I've been known to purchase a package at Trader Joes. To truly enjoy a stroopwafel, fragrant with butter and caramel, and just the slightest hint of cinnamon, you need the stroopwafel experience. It’s so interesting to think that the stroopwafel, a dowdy cookie that began as a popular pastry among the poor, has been elevated to pop sugar status.
Standing in line surrounded by people from different cultures, all sharing the same stroopwafel goal, is both humbling and eye opening. A sign on an adjacent building quietly speaks volumes, "Be Excellent To Each Other." Amidst the crowds and the distinctive fragrance of a commercial waffle iron, you realize we have much more in common than we have to keep us apart. #happynationalwaffleday
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