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World’s Fair Belgian Waffles

Let’s be frank, “EAT” is usually flashing in neon lights inside my head, though it’s not usually visualized in huge blinking letters for the world to see.

But that’s the word that confronted me from a 20-foot-high sign atop the Farnsworth Art Museum as I strolled down Main Street last summer in Rockland, Maine.

Robert Indiana EAT sculpture
Photo: Casey Barber

Turns out that the sign was a sculpture by Robert Indiana originally created for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair held in Flushing, Queens, recently restored and installed in a new home in New England.

The piece was only seen in its fully blinking glory by the first visitors to the Fair in April 1964.

According to the Farnsworth Museum, “the presence of Indiana’s EAT sculpture at the NY State Pavilion induced long lines of fair-goers to line up outside the building, thinking, wrongly, that there was a restaurant inside. The confusion led the fair administrators to turn off the lights just a few days after the piece was installed.”

world's fair belgian waffles
Photo: Casey Barber

Indiana’s sculpture got me thinking about the food people did eat at the 1964 World’s Fair, leading me down a rabbit hole of research that culminated in a feature story I wrote for Gourmet Live.

While the Fair’s concession stands hawked the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, a financial screw-up kept a bunch of American food and beverage brands away from the pavilions. Cheap and exotic options like chow mein, sushi, kofte steak, tandoori, and Thai curry were readily available, however.

Queens Unisphere
Photo: Casey Barber

And visitors ate them up—predating our current predilection for global cuisine, street food, and a casual approach to eating manifest in restaurants like David Chang’s Momofuku empire and Yotam Ottolenghi‘s cafes.

But the runaway best-seller at the World’s Fair was the Belgian—or “Bel-Gem,” as it was called—waffle.

world's fair belgian waffles
Photo: Casey Barber

Light and fluffy, the World’s Fair Belgian waffles were so popular that even stands with absolutely no culinary connection to the carbohydrate started offering them on the menu in hopes of cashing in.

They popped up next to the falafel at the Lebanese restaurant, alongside egg rolls at the Hong Kong pavilion, with lines snaking down to the sidewalks. “it was a tidal wave, everybody had to have a waffle stand by 1965,” said Bill Cotter, World’s Fair expert and author.

world's fair bel-gem waffles sign
Photo: Casey Barber

World’s Fair enthusiast Gary Holmes has traveled the globe eating his fill at fairs and expos over the past few decades, and tracked down Mariepaule Vermersch, the daughter of the husband-and-wife team that brought the Bel-Gem waffle to America.

She had been plying the family trade at the New York State Fair in Syracuse and at her coffee shop in Albuquerque.

world's fair belgian waffles
Photo: Casey Barber

Though the Vermersch family sold the Syracuse location of Maurice’s Belgian Waffles (named after her father) and Mariepaule no longer runs her café, thanks to Holmes’ sleuthing, I’m happy to share the recipe he uses for waffles with the authentic taste of those sold at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Adding yeast to the batter gives the waffles a malty tang and a crispy exterior that Bisquick or baking powder alone just can’t compete with.

Letting the batter rise for an hour might seem like an excruciating wait, especially when you’ve got a crowd of brunchers ready to stab you with a fork.

world's fair belgian waffles

But just think—it’s nothing compared to the long lines of waffle addicts waiting in the summer sun at the World’s Fair.

For a true Fair feel, top with powdered sugar, whipped cream, and strawberries.

world's fair belgian waffles

World's Fair Belgian Waffles

Yield: 16 square waffles
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Additional Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

These yeasted Belgian waffles are authentic to those first eaten in America at the 1964 World's Fair. Fluffy inside and crispy outside, they're perfect with a sprinkling of powdered sugar.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
  • 4 cups (480 grams) all-purpose unbleached flour
  • confectioner's sugar, whipped cream, and/or fresh fruit for serving

Instructions

  1. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over low heat until warm to the touch but not steaming or bubbling.
  2. Measure out 1/4 cup warmed milk (into the proper measuring cup, of course) and sprinkle the yeast over the milk.
  3. Stir gently and let sit for 10 minutes.
  4. Melt the butter in a small saucepan while the yeast dissolves.
  5. Whisk the melted butter, the dissolved yeast, sugar, salt, vanilla, and egg yolks together in a large bowl.
  6. Whisk in the remaining milk, then gently stir the flour into the batter with a wooden spoon. It will be slightly lumpy.
  7. With a stand mixer or electric hand mixer, whip the egg whites until soft peaks form when you pull the beaters out of the eggs. The egg whites will still be droopy; don't overwhip!
  8. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
  9. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let the batter rise in a warm place for an hour.
  10. Heat your waffle iron and cook your waffles according to your appliance's specifications. For me, that's a heaping 1/4 cup of batter on a piping-hot iron, cooked for about 5 minutes. Your mileage may vary.
  11. Serve immediately with confectioner's sugar, whipped cream, and/or fresh fruit.

Notes

adapted from Maurice Vermersch's original recipe reprinted in the Queens Tribune

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Nutrition Information:
Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 506Total Fat: 31gSaturated Fat: 18gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 10gCholesterol: 198mgSodium: 803mgCarbohydrates: 47gFiber: 2gSugar: 29gProtein: 11g

The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.

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32 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this recipe. Will have to try adding yeast.

    Your post took me back to my visit to the World’s Fair. I love the sign, although I don’t remember seeing it however many years ago that was.

  2. Oh yes.. I remember the lines, and the delicious NEW experience of the “bel-gum” waffles… quite unlike anything we’d ever had before. Just to eat a waffle when it WASN’T breakfast was a fun experience, too! Thanks for the memories!!

  3. Thanks for the memories. I was there! Unfortunately the only “food” I remember is a wonderful Irish coffee, sipped while sitting in the sun outside Ireland’s building. The first I’d ever had, and the first of many more.
    Oh how I loved the Fair and how I miss World’s Fairs. Isn’t it a shame they’ve disappeared?

  4. Vera, world’s fairs haven’t disappeared. They just aren’t held in the U.S. any longer. The last one was in Shanghai in 2010, the next in Yoseau, Korea next year.

    1. Randy, good point about the world expos. It is too bad that the U.S. doesn’t host them any more, though.

  5. It IS too bad the US doesn’t host world’s fairs anymore, but from what I understand the prestige is fading. Thanks for the recipe–and history lesson–I love yeasted waffles.

  6. I’ve tried other yeast waffles and didn’t care for them, but maybe this one is different! I will give it a try

  7. I clearly remember walking into the tent (?) where they served these and being blown away by how delicious they were! In fact, that is my clearest memory of the World’s Fair – and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Thanks for the recipe!

    1. Sheryl, that’s so cool – you’ll have to try this recipe and report back as to whether the waffles are just like you remembered.

      1. Sorry , but there’s no way my father give this recipe as we’ve never used milk for our Authentic Brussels Waffles ( renamed by my mother for the world’s fair ) Belgian Waffle . Until this day our family recipe has never been divulged and I still make our Original waffles for catering.

  8. Now I’m craving Belgian Waffles and it’s midnight here. In Northern Michigan.

    That is an awesome EAT sign.

  9. I just ran across thispost and a long lost memory popped to the forefront of my brain. I was 8 years old in 1964 and attended the World’s Fair with my sisters and parents. There were two things we could not leave without purchasing. One was a little strip of fake fur with googley eyes that was sewn to a piece of suede. When you put it on your arm and petted it, it would crawl like a caterpillar. It was top on my sister’s and my list. The other thing were these waffles. You could smell them everywhere. They were topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. A far cry from mom’s waffles. Both of my parents and one of my sisters are gone now but thanks so much for bringing back such a fond memory. Now I’ll make these waffles and remember a wonderful time shared with my family.

    1. I just came across this article after thinking about those waffles at the Worlds Fair. Such good memories as a child with family that is now gone. My sister and I always talk of these waffles and can’t wait to try it. Funny after all these years people still can’t forget them. I still can remember the taste, such good times.

  10. I just came across this post because my mom was just telling me about how she visited the ’64 world’s fair with her family when she was a child, and that her father spent decades trying to replicate the waffle recipe. Unfortunately he’s gone now, but she’s looking forward to trying this recipe and seeing if it tastes like what she remembers. Thank you for posting this!

  11. Just found your article, July 24, 2013. I have a Bel-Gem waffle sign that is rumored to be from the 1964 World’s Fair. We have donated it for the August 3, 2013 Gibbs Library, Washington, Maine fundraising live auction at 6:30 pm. You can see a photo of it on the library website.

    1. Paulette, that sign is AMAZING! I’m so upset that I won’t be able to participate in the auction – I’ll be visiting relatives in Wiscasset starting August 5, but won’t be in the area before then. What a shame. If, for some unknown reason, it doesn’t sell at the auction, I’d be happy to buy it later that week!

    2. I am MariePaule Vermersch ,daughter of Maurice and Rosa Vermersch who introduced the Authentic Brussels Waffle ( renamed by my mother ) Belgian Waffle and as in Queens New York we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the1964-65 NewYork world’s Fair I have been contacted by all sorts of media and also have been reading all sorts of comments on the internet regarding our waffles . The name Bel-gem was a misprinted and my father decide to not have it corrected as we were days of opening at the world’s Fair . So I sure hope that the one of our signs that you sold on auction went for a good cause .

      1. Hi MariePaule Vermersch! The Bel-Gem Waffle sign was sold at the Gibbs Library’s auction last year and the money was used for library books and programs. I had originally found the sign at our local Giant Garage Sale in Washington, Maine and bought it because it reminded me of the NY Worlds Fair. When I was ten years old I lived in NYC and attended the NY World’s Fair. I remember your family’s waffles! That was a big highlight. My husband and I went to Belgium last year and had a similar waffle in Brugge. It reminded us of the World’s Fair.

  12. Hello Bill and Gary ,
    Yes it is me MariePaule Vermersch , we’ve met some years ago at my Belgian Waffle business at the New York State Fair in Syracuse . Just recently returned to New Mexico after spending 6 months in New York ( Queens ) to care for my mother ( now 95 ) and also attend w/ her to the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and our authentic Belgian Waffles . For my family and I the feelings of all this fus regarding our Waffles is very emotional and a bit bitter sweet through the past 50 years so many food places and companies have tried to copy our product and to many claiming they are the original , our name and story printed ( without our authorization) in so many books regarding the New York World’s Fair . What feels good at this point is that finally there is a recognition to my parents for having introduced the Authentic Brussels Waffle ( renamed by my mother ” Belgian Waffle ” ) and their hard work . My mother original recipied until this day has never been divulged and still carry on my family legacy serving our famous Waffles .
    MariePaule Vermersch

  13. We are having a World’s Fair Party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the New York fair. We are buying some ready to heat dishes and making others. Of course, we have to have these waffles! Tried them last night to test prep time, etc and they were delicious!!! Our guests (about 70) will love them!

  14. No, we are in Southern California!!! Lots of guests are Disney people. and celebrating the Mr. Lincoln, Carousel of Progress and Small World attractions! One of the guests was instrumental in the animatronics of Mr. Lincoln. So, the bartender will be dressed like Mr. Lincoln!!! But, the waffles will be the dessert of the evening!!!!!
    The menu has gotten out of control–Appetizers: Spain-sangria with manchego, olives and marcona almonds, Japan-sushi, Finland-crackers with blue cheese mousse, Norway-herring, Hawaii- pineapple and macadamia nuts, Wisconsin-cheddar, Netherlands-Gouda, Norway-snofrisk cheese, Mexico-chips and salsa, Denmark-\havarti cheese. Breads- Lebanon-falafel, Philippines=pan de sal, , India-samosas and naan bread. Salads: Greek in mini pita pockets, Morocco= couscous, Minnesota-wild rice. Main: Florida-alligator, Hong Kong-egg rolls, China-orange chicken with rice, Sweden – meatballs, Mexico-tacos, Switzerland-fondue, India-shrimp tandoori, New Jersey-Italian sausage with peppers and onions on rolls, Maryland-crab cakes with remoulade, Desserts: BELGIUM-fabulous waffles with strawberries and powdered sugar, Sweden-dala horse candy and red fish candy, Denmark-butter cookies, New Jersey-salt water taffy. Special drinks dreamed up by the Disney team!! Decor galore! Some purchased from Ebay!!! On July 5th!!! Will report back after the party!!!

  15. These waffles were a hit for the party guests! This was the final food we served out of 35 different ones. The guests went home with a great feeling! Still talking about the waffles!!! Thank you!

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