THIS ARTICLE IS ADAPTED FROM THE NOVEMBER 26, 2022 ISSUE OF THE GASTRO OBSCURA FAVORITE THINGS NEWSLETTER. YOU MAY SIGN UP HERE.
Kitchen gadgets that have a single use are often ingenious and rather silly, like the tabletop s’mores makers that Amazon is touting as the hottest appliance of the year. (Who eats that many s’mores?)
But I’d put up a fight if someone tried to take my waffle iron. Sure, it takes up half a kitchen cabinet, but it’s a rare kitchen appliance whose essential function can’t be replaced by MacGyver-like creativity.
For me, waffles are the perfect food. They are easy to make, not too sweet, and extremely versatile.
Perhaps this is why, from medieval Europe until now, people have made room for a waffle iron in their kitchens. So this week, we’re exploring how the waffle has found its way onto dinner plates around the world.
Waffles have long been a family sight at the dinner table. Even before the first known waffle recipe was recorded in 1393, people were already cooking batter-based cakes and wafers quickly in special iron pans. Wafels, an old term for the food in Dutch and German, referred to their honeycomb shape, although the irons could also be cast to press shapes like stars and flowers into cakes.
After the Dutch introduced them to the American colonies, they became a local favorite. In the 18th century, waffles became so popular that, before the Revolution, Americans hosted “waffle parties” where the crispy treats were the main event.
Currently, museum collections contain waffle irons from centuries past, which are more like long-handled torture devices. The 20th century electric waffle maker made things a lot easier, but it would take three Californian brothers to make waffles for breakfast every day, instead of a special treat.
One day in the spring of 2020, I was in the middle of a very long pandemic walk when I found myself on Eggo Way. I walked around imagining how some poor devil named John Eggo must have been upset when a brand of frozen waffles appeared with his name on it.
But at the end of Eggo Way, I found a Kellogg factory. Curious, I walked home and started researching, only to find out that Eggo waffles do indeed come from my hometown of San Jose. But the name “Eggo” was never intended to apply to waffles.
Frank, Tony and Sam Dorsa made mayonnaise. Starting their business in his mother’s home in 1932, they boasted that their version of the condiment used fresh eggs, prompting them to call the fledgling company “Eggo.”
Building on their success with mayonnaise, the brothers soon turned to French fries and then a powdered waffle mix. However, by the 1950s, frozen foods were on the rise. Frank, the family inventor, designed a giant waffle carousel and the Eggo frozen waffle was born.
Kellogg’s bought Eggo Food Products in the 1970s, and Eggo-brand potato chips and mayonnaise are no more. But Kellogg’s still makes waffles on Eggo Way, and Dorsa’s descendants are still in the food and drink industry, in the form of a Santa Cruz Mountains winery, La Rusticana d’Orsa.
CA Bakehouse consists of little more than a counter and menu, but they are proud to be the home of “The Original Green Waffle.” At their shop in San Jose’s Little Saigon, they sell pandan and coconut waffles that have become a local specialty.
When I say these waffles are green, I’m not kidding. While the exterior is a tan brown, the fluffy interior is a vibrant, almost turquoise green, dotted with threads of shredded coconut.
They’re delicious enough to eat out-of-the-box, and Vietnamese bakeries often make them to order, with a line of ready-to-use steaming griddles. During Tết, or Vietnamese New Year, I follow my nose to the festival food stalls: you can smell its intense coconut aroma anywhere.
The French probably brought waffles to Vietnam during the colonial period, where they got their delicate floral flavor and green hue from pandan leaves. CA Bakehouse is proud to be the first place to serve them in the United States, back in 1990. While they’ve been around for a while, to me, they’re the future of waffles—beyond breakfast, beyond syrup, and beyond crunchy, sweet and comforting.
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