Chicken and Waffles the Amish Way

Casey Barber

by Casey Barber on February 28, 2013

Brace yourself: we’re about to travel deep into the hinterlands of Pennsylvania once again for one of those “only in PA” culinary specialties that surprise and mystify the population at large. This time, it’s chicken and waffles—not the famous Southern version with fried chicken and maple syrup, but the kind I grew up eating with roasted chicken, yellow gravy, and sometimes, for that extra helping of carbs, a scoop of mashed potatoes.

amish pennsylvania dutch chicken and waffles
An Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, this curious compilation is seen more frequently in the towns east of Pittsburgh, where it pops up on local restaurant and buffet menus from State College to Lancaster to Reading. “Whenever I’ve tried to discuss our style of chicken and waffles with people, they seem confused until I explain that the waffles are just a nice alternative to dumplings or mashed potatoes with a roast chicken dinner (or, at my grandma’s house, an addition to mashed potatoes!),” said food writer and northeastern Pennsylvania native Michele Laudig. “It’s the starch that soaks up all the delicious gravy.”

Unlike Michele’s experiences, this wasn’t a meal served at home for my family. Chicken and waffles were a special-occasion food, a delicacy available when we gussied ourselves up to go to the Oakhurst Tea Room in Somerset, which has been serving the dish since 1933. It’s still part of their smorgasbord buffet and available on the lunch menu, where they’ll let you choose stuffing or french fries in place of the mashed potatoes if you so desire, but warn that there’s “No half portion on Waffle unless two people are splitting it.”

It was also often the closest I came to religion. The dish has always been a staple of Pennsylvania church and community fairs, served in the cool linoleum-floored basement meeting halls as a fundraising tool and counterpoint to the fresh-squeezed lemonade and Slushies from the outdoor booths. Despite not being Catholic, I ate my fair share of chicken and waffles from St. Benedict’s church on Bedford St., tagging along with friends during our summer vacations.

amish pennsylvania dutch chicken and waffles
Once we moved closer to Pittsburgh and further away from the more traditionally rural Pennsylvania Dutch communities, chicken and waffles fell off my culinary radar. I got my driver’s license and spent weekends eating Denny’s caesar salad and seasoned fries (with a side of caesar dressing for dipping!), Boston Market side item samplers, and Eat n’ Park clam chowder with friends, forgetting my food roots as so many teenagers do in favor of the communal booths of chain restaurants. Now that I’m older and look at my upbringing through a nostalgic lens, I think it’s time to bring chicken and waffles back to prominence.

Though the Amish chicken and waffle combo has been spotted as far south as Baltimore, it sadly hasn’t made the leap to nationwide fame. While I understand the appealing mash-up of fried, salty, and sweet that’s brought Southern chicken and waffles to icon status, the “epic comfort food” (as Michele calls it) deserves a bigger place at the table.

Why don’t more Pennsylvania-bred chefs tweak it for their menus and give it an upscale spin? Meat and Potatoes, the downtown Pittsburgh gastropub, does a Southern version with fried chicken, bourbon and bacon-infused syrup, and a savory cheddar jalapeño waffle for brunch, but ignores the PA heritage version entirely. (They also do a fancy bologna sandwich for lunch, but that’s another story.) Supper in Philadelphia serves chicken over a biscuit with truffle mustard cream sauce, which is at least a step closer to my goal of a chicken and waffle on every plate, but it’s still a nearly fruitless search.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to make it at home with the remnants of my roasted chicken, a quick batch of waffles, and a pan of poultry gravy—it’s gotta be creamy, and it’s gotta have that golden hue. If you’re from Pennsylvania and have memories of chicken and waffles, leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear your variations and if you’ve seen it elsewhere in the country.

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