The unlikely pairing of chicken and waffles, as the story goes, owes its popularity to the famous Harlem jazz hot spot Wells’, a supper club that sold the breakfast-dinner hybrid to a hungry clientele emerging from nightclubs in the wee hours. Shanga Hankerson, 38, the youngest of “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight’s three children, speaking from his home in Atlanta, says that he became acquainted with the dish because of his mother’s performances at Wells’. Hankerson now owns three chicken and waffle locations bearing her name.
One restaurant is Gladys Knight and Ron Winans Chicken & Waffles (Winans was a singer and part of a gospel group called the Winans); two others in the region are called Gladys Knight’s Signature Chicken & Waffles. The menus feature Southern staples like shrimp and grits, fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, yams, black-eyed peas, and the classic fried green tomatoes. One customer favorite is smothered chicken, which is fried boneless white meat on a bed of rice, drenched in brown gravy. Hankerson recalls how, cooking in his first restaurant almost 20 years ago, he entreated his mother to teach him the recipe. Although Hankerson cooked the recipe with chicken breast — his mother, now 71, uses legs — the dish bowled customers over. “I think we made maybe 30 servings, and it was gone in about five minutes,” says Hankerson. Knight’s recipe, with the white meat substituting for dark, is still on the menu.
In fact, most of the recipes are Knight’s; Hankerson says she visits the restaurants to taste the quality of the food. “The squash casserole is one of her best dishes, but it’s so delicate, it’s difficult to get it right on a volume level,” says Hankerson. “Yesterday she came in and ordered the squash casserole, and she’s like, ‘It’s close, it’s close!’ ”
The best-selling item is the “Midnight Train,” a nod to Knight’s 1973 hit song with The Pips. It includes four fried chicken wings and a large waffle, a vehicle for butter and syrup. It’s the fried chicken that really shines — crunchy on the outside but juicy on the inside, and salty in just the right way. Hankerson won’t divulge the recipe, but says that “however you make your fried chicken, the secret is in the marination.”
Soul food historian Adrian Miller speculates on how fried chicken and waffles become a quintessential pairing. The Wells story “owes a lot to Mr. Wells’s marketing genius,” says the author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time.” Though the dish was popularized at Wells’, says Miller, its true origins lie with the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of creamed chicken and waffles. Waffles may seem like a strange choice to add to a savory dish, but they were considered a type of quickbread, not confined to breakfast.
Recipes for creamed chicken and waffles gradually made it from Pennsylvania to the South, a region that already had a strong tradition of fried meats. Thanks to a prominent English cookbook published in the mid-1700s, fried chicken was popular among Colonists, essentially turning fried chicken into “the preeminent dish of the antebellum South for entertaining,” says Miller. “It was a special occasion dish — you didn’t eat it a lot. It was a very popular entertaining dish on weekends. A plantation owner would put on a spread featuring a lot of fried meats and hot breads.”
After making the journey down South, Miller says, the original recipe’s creamed chicken became fried. Because cooking duties typically fell to slaves, black cooks who served waffles with fried chicken helped make the dish a mainstay in both white and black cultures by the early 1900s. Though it lost ground the first few decades of the last century, the dish remains popular in Southern black culture today.
These days, versions of the dish can be found in Boston at restaurants like Myers + Chang, with ginger waffles and sweet-spicy syrup, and at Estelle’s in the South End, served with a cranberry gastrique. “I think chicken and waffles is so popular right now because it’s the perfect playground for chefs,” Miller says. “They can play off of textures, play off of sweet and savory.”
At Hankerson’s restaurants, chicken and waffles just make for plain good eating, the way Gladys Knight and her son want it to be.
Gladys Knight and Ron Winans Chicken & Waffles 7301 Stonecrest Concourse Suite 123, Lithonia, Ga., 770-482-6766
Gladys Knight’s Signature
Chicken & Waffles 529 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, Ga., 404-874-9393
3752 Cascade Road, Suite 100,
Atlanta, Ga., 404-537-5670
Cristin Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.