Friday, November 12, 2010

In Search of the Infamous Charleston Waffle

I am hot on the trail of a lost South Carolina delicacy: the Charleston Waffle.  I'm not exactly sure what it is, but somewhere around 1910, the city of Charleston gained nationwide attention--and, not long afterward, notoriety--for its waffles.  In fact, the term "Charleston waffle" seems to have become synonymous with a rich, heavy breakfast dish.

The first mention I've found of the Charleston waffle is a short paragraph in the Montgomery Advertiser on November 25, 1910.  It reads, “The [Charleston] News and Courier is in favor of using the Charleston waffle to fix ships that leak. Sure, that's all they're fit for. The Charleston waffle, from what we can learn, is better for patching purposes than either asbestos or leather.”

That's a weird paragraph, but actually not all that unusual for 1910. That decade was the high era of the “paragraphers” in American newspapers, when a typical daily would devote several columns if not a whole page to corny one-paragraph jokes, some of them commentary on issues of the day, some snide remarks about paragraphs from other newspapers, and some just the kind of groaners your goofy great-uncle used to repeat at dinner parties. Things like: “A somersault is nothing to a hot-air artist.” And, “We don't imagine that the Missouri man sentenced by a judge to obey his wife for six months will notice any particular difference.” Some paragraphers even wrote paragraphs about paragraphers, like “A paragrapher has one consolation. He knows his children will never be annoyed by the inheritance tax.”

And, boy, did the paragraphers love the Charleston waffle. In March 1911, when President Taft rushed 10,000 troops to the Texas border as revolutionary violence swept through Mexico, the Charleston News and Courier reported that “the troops in Texas will be fed Charleston waffles every Sunday morning.” A paragrapher for the Philadelphia Inquired replied, “Probably one of the disciplinary measures of the camp,” and added for good measure, “Charleston, by the way, is somewhere on the coast of South Carolina.”

In fact, almost all of the documentary evidence I can find about the Charleston waffle is captured in various three-line cornball commentaries. Here are just a few of the dozens I turned up:

“One good thing about Charleston waffles in these days of high prices for food is that those that are served for breakfast necessitate so much chewing that they are about ready to swallow by the time the supper hour arrives.” - Charlotte Observer (December 26, 1911).
“We are convinced that the Chicago man in whose stomach the surgeons found nineteen pocket knives, seventeen nails, five knife blades, a dozen screws, and a silver dollar, could digest a Charleston waffle.” - Augusta Chronicle (September 11, 1912)
“Germany's death rate shows and increase. Have they started eating Charleston waffles over there?” - Columbia State (September 12, 1912)
“The pneumatic Charleston waffles are guaranteed against puncture.” - Columbia State (September 4, 1913)
“We wish to raise our voice in earnest protest against sending any Charleston waffles to Belgium.” - Columbia State (September 4, 1913)
Columbia's State newspaper was one of the most prolific abusers of the Charleston waffle—part, I am sure, of the long-standing rivalry between the South Carolina's old capital city and its new one. The State's editors, Robert Elliott Gonzales and Ambrose Elliott Gonzales, even captured in verse the following suggested punishments for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa:

Make him sing the Star Spangled Banner, or,
Become an umpire, or
Work in a munitions plant, or
Drink some blind tiger likker, or
Live in Charlotte, or
Read the Congressional Record, or
Eat a Charleston waffle, or
Appoint him a paragrapher.
I think that technically counts as verse since it has short lines and everyone of them sort of rhymes with the others.

The Charleston News & Courier, it seems, undertook a spirited defense of its hometown specialty in paragraphs of its own, though other newspapers invariably used these as opportunities to heap on more corn. In April 1911, for instance, the N&C wrote, “We sent a Charleston waffle to New York but, of course, some postal clerk could not stand the temptation, and he took it.” The Baltimore Sun reprinted the paragraph under the headline “Wanted to Mend a Tire, Maybe.” When the N&C claimed in February 1912 that, “A gentleman gained ten pounds in one week eating Charleston waffles,” the Philadelphia Inquirer shot back, “Either from mere indifference or neglect to inquire more closely into the affair, however, it does not give any information concerning the result of the inevitable surgical operation.”

But, wisecracks aside, what in the heck was the Charleston waffle? It was definitely more than just a paragraphers' joke.  In its restaurants section, the 1912 New Guide to Modern Charleston noted about Riddock's Arcade on King Street, “A specialty is the Charleston waffle, reknowned for its delicacy all over the country.”  I've as yet been stymied, however, to uncover exactly what made Charleston's version of the waffle so special and how it gained nationwide reknown.

Part of the horrified reaction to the city's waffle might have been related to the more widespread criticism of the richness of the Southern diet, which since the 1890s had been coming under fiercer and fiercer attack from the new movement of nutritionists and "domestic scientists."   A big theme of these folks around the turn of the 20th century was the idea of "hot" and "cold" foods and their proper diet for a particular climate.  Waffles fell into this bucket.  A reporter for the New York Sun, for example, visited the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895 and recorded that, “the cold-bread eaters of the North and West” typically react “with horror of the richness of Southern cooking, their hot bread and waffles and their highly seasoned dishes.” Such food was thought to be at odds with the hot climate of the South and created, for whatever reason, “dyspepsia.”

But, most of the people making fun of the Charleston waffle were Southern newspapermen, ones I can only imagine had their fill of biscuits and cornbread on a regular basis.  So, the search goes on as I dig farther back into recipes and newspapers to see what I can dig up.  If anyone out there has any information that would help shed light on this mystery, please pass it along!


NMissC said...

Sounds as if you know everything there is to know about the Charleston waffle except what it is!

Robert said...

I know. That's the maddening part!

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