From Wafers to Cones: A Short History of the Waffle

Long before waffle cones and Eggo came on the scene, the waffle was part of the Western culinary tradition. The exact origins of this honeycombed cake are unknown, but the story of its evolution from a thin, crisp wafer to a thick, leavened cake, is a fascinating one. Join us as we take a trip through waffle history…

It is hard to imagine the waffle without its iconic honeycombed surface, but in the beginning it probably started as a simple, flat cake. The ancient Greeks cooked flat cakes, called obelios, between hot metal plates. As they spread throughout medieval Europe, the cakes – made from a mixture of flour, water or milk, and sometimes eggs – became known as wafers and were also cooked over an open fire between iron plates with long handles. At some point, perhaps in the 13th century, these began to be stamped with various designs ranging from family crests and landscape scenes to the characteristic grid pattern.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, wafers were eaten by all segments of society, from peasants to kings. Often consumed in connection with religious occasions and saints' days, they were sold by street vendors (called waferers in England and gaufriers in France) who congregated outside churches. (For some images of early waffle patterns and tools, check out Ivan Day's Historic Food site.)

The Dutch were particularly fond of wafles and colonists introduced them to the New World in the early 17th century. (It was in the New World that these cakes met their perfect companion, maple syrup.) By 1735, the word gained an extra "f," becoming waffle as we we know it today. Thomas Jefferson is said to have brought the first long-handled waffle iron to America in 1789. About 80 years later, New York's Cornelius Swarthout patented the first stovetop waffle iron.

Waffle cones for ice cream debuted at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. On the home front, the old stovetop waffle irons were outfitted for electricity and became common household appliances by the 1930s. Then, in 1964, the thicker, yeast-leavened Belgian waffle was introduced to Americans at the New York World's Fair. What's next for waffles? Stay tuned for our take on the savory waffle cone…

More about waffles:
Craving: Overnight Yeasted Waffles
Difference Between a Waffle Iron and Waffle Maker?
Flickr Find: Chicken and Waffles?
Good Question: Good Ideas for a Waffle Bar

Waffle recipes:
Take Your Cheddar One Step Further: Cheddar and Green Chile Waffles with Thyme Maple Syrup
The Best Waffle You'll Ever Eat: Gaufres de Liege

(Image: Martha Stewart's Buttermilk Waffles)

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Emily Han (formerly Emily Ho) is a writer, recipe developer and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food and herbalism. She is author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails (Fall 2015), co-founder of Food Swap Network and creator of Miss Chiffonade