How to eat chicken and waffles
Last week, a week or so after she introduced chicken and waffles to her menu, Ina Pinkney sent me a note:
"Here's the latest on the fried chicken and waffles," she wrote. "People are fainting over it. One man came three times last week, saying when he's working out in the morning, all he can think about is the 'damn chicken'! He called it Heroin Chicken! I haven't eaten it yet, so come in next week and let's eat it together."
I wasn't surprised to hear that Ina hadn't tasted her own chicken and waffles. She had told me over the phone that she didn't understand the dish—she didn't get what was so appealing about it, or how to eat it. I told her that I didn't understand it very well, either.
So a week ago I sat in the back of Ina's dining room with her and Seana, the restaurant's manager. As we waited for our orders of chicken to be ready, we watched other people's chicken being carried through the dining room. "The servers take the longest route to the tables as possible," Ina told me in a hush tone. "That way, everybody gets to see and smell it." As she was saying this, people were stopping the servers and asking what dish they were carrying.
Chicken and waffles—an amalgam of Southern food (fried chicken) and late-night/early-morning eats (waffles)—has almost no rules. In the short period that they'd been serving the dish, Ina and Seana had seen people eat it a myriad of ways: Some people go right for the chicken, saving the waffle for dessert. Others do exactly the opposite: They start with the waffle, because they want to save the chicken for last. One person shred the chicken, put it on the waffle, poured syrup over the whole thing and ate it like that. And a high-profile politician came in, tucked a napkin into her shirt and went after the chicken with her hands.
I was considering the shredded chicken approach, but then our plates arrived and I decided to go with my gut response, which was the hit the chicken first. I picked up a knife and fork.
"Hands, David," Ina instructed. I put the utensils down. She was right, of course. The chicken—the cornflakelike crust sealing in hot chicken juice—tasted better when I used my hands. And better still when I dipped it in the spicy honey that was on the plate.
Ina ignored the honey. We both ignored the waffle.
As we ate, Cortez Trotter, the former fire commissioner, came up to tell Ina good morning.
"Have you had the chicken yet?" Ina asked.
He shot her a look of incredulity. "You know I've had them," he said. "I've had them three times already."
Next, Richard Christiansen, the former theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, materialized. He had a birthday party at Ina's once, and fried chicken was practically the only dish that was served. Yet he still looked at our plates longingly.
"How is it?" he asked.
My mouth was full, so I just nodded aggressively.
Eventually, Ina and I got around to the waffle. I tried it with the honey, tried it with the syrup. Not bad, but I still didn't see the point, and I could tell that Ina felt the same way. When she picked a piece of waffle up, she had a resigned expression on her face that said Guess I'll eat this, too.
I picked up my fork and started eating the chicken again.
"David, I'm going to take that silverware away," Ina said.
She continued: "I have rules about dating. Never commit to a person until you've spent all four seasons with them. Never commit until you've seen them angry. And on one of your first dates, go out for ribs—if they don't eat it with their hands, they're going to be bad in bed."
(Needless to say, I didn't pick up my fork again after that.)
As we reached the end of our plates, we began to theorize a bit. "If this were greasy chicken, this waffle would serve a purpose," I said. I was imagining a waffle that had been soaking up chicken fat and syrup for a few minutes.
"I still think it's a goofy combination," Ina said. "But I understand eating the waffle for dessert."
But it didn't really matter what we thought, because we were obviously in the minority. Looking around the dining room, it seemed like almost every other table had a plate of chicken and waffles on it. And a server was zig-zagging his way through them, carrying a fresh plate to Christiansen.