Thursday, April 24, 2008

Waffle! Waffle! Waffle!

My family and I spent the week after Easter on vacation, and the house we stayed in had full cable. This of course led me to watch many many hours of Food Network programming, including several episodes of Good Eats. Now I like this show - it's entertaining and educational, and most of all it's about food. How cool is that?

However, every now and then Alton Brown's food historian would let loose with some bit of absolute, unsupportable nonsense. 

For example in the episode on waffles, the food historian stated something to the effect that waffles developed from the sacramental wafers of the middle ages. This caused me to pass root beer out my nose and to say something rude to the television.  Let's just say that didn't sound right to me.  So now I'm compelled to look into the history of waffles.

I'll start off with a nice painting ...

waffles, ca. 1567

Click on the link and take a closer look. See those things in the lower-left corner? Waffles. Very modern looking waffles for that matter.

There are a handful of medieval recipes for things called "waffles", "wafers", and even "guaffres", but they all describe something that sounds like the thing above. Some of them call for a slice of cheese to be encased in the batter before waffling, others have ground-up fish parts mixed into the batter ("Mmmm ... fish waffles").

There is one reference in Menager de Paris (France, 15th c.) that describes something less waffle-like, but it sounds more like a pizzelle than a wafer, and another from The English Housewife (England, 17th c.) that is definitely a pizzelle. Neither really supports the claim that waffles came from wafers though.

medieval waffle iron
(looks like a pizzelle maker to me)

What about medieval sacramental wafers? Well in medieval England and France sacramental wafers were called "obleys", not "wafers" (the word "obley" comes from the same source as "obligation"). So it appears at the time that waffles (by any name) and sacramental wafers were already two distinctly different things.  

Interestingly, Mayhew and Skeat's Concise Dictionary of Middle English defines "wafer" as "a thin small cake" and notes that it comes from the Old High German "waba" meaning "honey-comb".

So I'll accept that the terms "waffle" and "wafer" were used indiscriminately throughout much of the middle ages, and even that sometime in the late middle ages the meaning of "wafer" evolved to include sacramental wafers. But saying that one of these two items is derived from the other is bunk.

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