At its best, food is a deeply romantic thing. Not for its ability to inspire love and gratitude in those you prepare it for- though it certainly is a powerful tool in that regard- but for its tendency to conjure, perpetuate and elucidate its own mythology.
Fried chicken and waffles. As a cornerstone of the ‘soul food’ philosophy this simple menu item evokes smoky jazz bars, Harlem sunrises and the worn linoleum counters of corner diners.
Out of context, the pairing comes across as a composite sketch drawn in error: richly savoury fried chicken, laid over slightly sweet waffles, drizzled with sugary maple syrup. It makes little sense. You wouldn’t, for example, order battered fish on chocolate chip cookies drizzled with strawberry sauce.
But it’s the romance of the dish, encapsulated by the unconfirmed but widely believed story of its origins, that not only imbues it with edibility, but elevates it to iconic status.
The story goes, roughly speaking, that jazz musicians in Harlem would stop into 24 hour diners after their gigs in the earliest hours of the morning, just as the menus were being changed over from all-night specials like fried chicken to breakfast fare like eggs, pancakes and, yes, waffles.
In this magically brief crossover window, in places with names as flawlessly wonderful as ‘Tillie’s Chicken Shack’ and ‘Dickie Wells’ Jazz Nightclub’, components could be ordered from both menus.
Disappointingly the story, beautiful as it is, doesn’t survive rigorous scrutiny, with a 1909 waffle iron advertisement promoting ‘a chicken and waffle supper right at home…’, predating the era of the jazz clubs by almost 20 years. Does that really matter, though? What a dish evokes is different to where exactly it came from.
Tiramisu, to briefly use a different example, feels as though it’s as steeped in history as lasagne, pizza and other tenants of Italian cuisine, but the dish was only created in the late 1970s. Does that controvert its emotional resonance, though? Are we suddenly wrong to be transported to Rossellini’s Roma with every creamy, boozy, biscuity mouthful?
Food, of course, satisfies the basic human need for fuel, but it also fulfils other less physical but almost just as essential requirements: our need to be connected to the past. To places. To people. Sometimes it’s a recipe passed down through generations that links us to our personal history, and sometimes it’s simply a dish that evokes a time and place we will never personally experience. A culinary space/time machine.
It might seem discordant to those who haven’t tried it- fried chicken, waffles and syrup- but comes with a side of romance. And isn’t that the kind of soul food we should all want more of?