George Foreman may be the modern day king of foods cooked between two hot metal plates, but the idea goes back at least to the Greeks. They cooked flour pastes between two pieces of fire-heated iron to produce obleios. These flat, savory pastries (which were often served filled) were the distant ancestor of both the waffle and the grilled cheese sandwich.
The hot plate technique endured into the Middle Ages, by which time special hinged irons were invented, not unlike the pie irons campers use nowadays. The French of the time (really the Franks) called the flat, crispy cakes that came out of them gaufres, the root word of both waffle and wafer. In fact for most of their history waffles really were wafers, little more than super-thin cookies, made either by pouring batter into a hot iron, or by toasting thin sheets of dough (so-called “wafer paper”) in a hot press. By the high Middle Ages the irons used to produce wafers became elaborately decorated, so much so that wafers started to take on ritual significance, consumed at court ceremonies and in, ehem, other contexts.
Yet the evolution of the wafer was far from over. Delicate and delicious, they found favor among the aristocracy (the French especially), who featured them in desserts, either rolled into tubes called cannelons or into cone shapes called known as cornets. Yet being so easy to prepare, filled wafers also made excellent street food. So-called “waferers”, or street sellers, were fixtures of Elizabethan London, where they became notorious as go-betweens in clandestine love affairs.
It was about that time that the wafer made its way to the region now known as modern-day Holland and Belgium, where something new was added: yeast. The simple wafer world would never be the same. Soon wafel parties were all the rage among trendy Dutch fashionistas, who were said to have introduced them to the pilgrims. Yet being rather austere types, I have a hard time imagining the pilgrims whooping it up over hot cakes late into the night. They would have looked so silly dancing in those hats and big-buckled shoes. Still I guess anything’s possible. To me Mr. Jefferson will always be the American waffle king.