Waffles and Wafers

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WAFFLES AND WAFERS. Waffles and wafers are like many other foods of ancient origin in that the name and the food described have separate histories that eventually merge into one. The wafer traces its origin to ancient Egypt, but the descriptive terms applied to it are generally of medieval origin. In Latin, oblatao and oblatum were used to denote cakes made with unleavened flour and water worked into a thin flat round or square sheet of pastry and baked until crisp. This Latin root meaning is still employed in many European languages, but with varied interpretations. In modern German, Oblaten are both communion wafers and sheets of paperlike material laid under gingerbreads or baked meringues to keep them from sticking to the baking sheet. In Polish, oplatki are communion wafers or any wafers resembling them in shape and texture.

In English, however, the root word stems from medieval German and Anglo-Saxon: weben, "to weave," in reference to the crisscrossed pattern on the surface of the wafer. It appears in medieval Frankish as wafel and later in medieval French as waufre, now written gaufre, with the diminutive gaufrette. Gaufre can also be a honeycomb and in that sense may refer to an ancient pattern imprinted on certain wafers. This same honeycomb design is found on Coptic ritual breads in Egypt and may relate to an extinct votive wafer or flat bread sweetened with honey. Its modern survival may be the Swiss Tirggel, a type of honey wafer imprinted with a wide variety of ornamental images.

The wafers of ancient Egypt were prepared from only the finest wheat flour (actually the flour of emmer, a species of primitive wheat). Athenaeus of Naukratis attributed the origin of the wafer's name (obelias ) to the fact that it cost one obel (a thin Greek coin). Since this "fact" was drawn from a literary source, it may well be pure folk etymology. As Otto Meinardus has pointed out repeatedly in his seminal work on early Coptic Christianity, there is a far more fundamental dimension to the wafer since the grain from which it was made was treated as the actual "body of Osiris" (Meinardus 1964 and 1999); thus those who partook of the ritual wafers were said to live by the body of their god. This concept was carried over into Christianity in two forms: in the oblata hosta employed as the bread of communion in the Latin church (due perhaps to its similarity in shape and function to ritual bannocks), and in the fetir (leavened flat bread), duhn (unleavened flat bread), and qurban (communion loaf) of the Coptic church. All three Coptic breads may be stamped, although it is mainly the qurban that serves as the ritual link to pre-Christian Egypt by virtue of its employment as communion bread. This bread, prepared only by monks from the finest wheat flour, is stamped with a wooden form to create the honey-comb pattern also found on wafers. This pattern is sometimes described by art historians as interlocking crosses.

In addition to the New Testament associations of the communion bread, the Copts also believe that Adam received grains of wheat from the Archangel Michael and therefore must honor god with bread offerings. The Feast of St. Michael on 12 Hatur (21 November) is one of the major Coptic feasts for which a large number of ritual breads are prepared. Thus, some of the earliest depictions of both wafers and round loaves stamped with wafer patterns can be found in Coptic art honoring this saint.

The introduction of the ritual wafer into the West cannot be accurately dated, although in the form taken over by Christians, it may have arrived in connection with the cult of Osiris once found throughout the Roman Empire. It survived solely as a key element of the Latin Eucharist and remained a point of contention with Eastern Orthodoxy, which claimed that the Christ intended leavened bread for the Eucharist. Jacobite Christians even claim to preserve the original sourdough starter.

During the Middle Ages, communion wafers were made by monasteries, which also sold them as a form of fasting food, since they contained no animal fats, eggs, or dairy products. It is evident, however, that the composition of wafers could be elaborated with expensive ingredients like saffron, sugar, and various spices for the benefit of the nobility and other classes of society willing to pay a higher price for a more pleasurable form of self-denial. By the 1200s wafers were well integrated into courtly cuisine and form one of the standard dessert foods served at banquets. One of the earliest references to this appears in the 1285 Anglo-Norman "Treatise of Walter of Bibbesworth," which includes dinner menus set to verse. In one menu, the meal ends with "plenty of wafers" (oubleie a fuissun ). These were probably sweetened with sugar from Cyprus and flavored with saffron, since sweet saffron wafers are mentioned many times in medieval manuscript cookery books.

Wafers also played a significant role in localized religious observances in many parts of Europe. In Franconia (a subdivision of modern Bavaria), wafers were especially important on Ascension Day and Pentecost. On Ascension, for example, the Auswerfung des Himmelbrots (showering the manna) was practiced, whereby priests threw wafers and other treats down from the "sky" painted on the church ceiling in imitation of manna falling from heaventhis after a figure of Christ was hoisted up through a trap door as though rising into the clouds. In Alsace, communion wafers were purchased from monasteries and used to ornament the earliest known Christmas trees. In most cases, these wafers were ornamented with religious pictures, Christian symbols, or a simple cross.

Since wafers could be consumed as fasting fare, there was considerable demand for them in towns and cities. This demand led to the secularization of wafer manufacture as a specialized craft organized into guilds. Wafer makers also altered the pictorial imagery employed on wafers, introducing scenes from fables, classical antiquity, coats-of-arms, or symbols of love. Thus the wafer moved from a purely religious context to a middle-class form of dessert, especially for festive occasions. By the 1600s, the irons used to make wafers were commonly found in the homes of well-off burghers, and many Dutch, French, German, Spanish, and Italian still life paintings show wafers, especially those rolled into tubes, scattered among the foods on richly appointed tables. These festive wafers acquired numerous names all over Europe, such as pizzelle in Italy, Eiserkuchen (iron cakes) in some parts of Germany, or in Holland Nijarskouk (New Year's cake). Elsewhere they were called Twelfth Night wafers and were even stamped with fantastic masks or printed with molds to resemble playing cardsthis latter motif popular in Switzerland.

Wafers rolled into tubes were not an invention of the Renaissance even though they became popular at that time. The concept is said to trace to the Christians of Syria who were especially well known for their filled pastries during the Byzantine period. One type of wafer was first wrapped around sticks of sugar cane to dry, then removed, filled with various rich mixes of mashed fruit or cheese, and fried or baked. These confections were taken to India by the Syrian Christians who settled there and were continued by the exiled Syrians living in Cyprus during the de Lusignan dynasty (12911489). Wafers filled with jelly or used sandwich style for fruits cooked in wine and mashed, continued to be popular as Christmas confections in Europe well into the nineteenth century. Bent into cones, they were used to hold various sweets, and this idea was the basis for the now ubiquitous ice-cream cone commercialized at the U.S. Centennial in 1876.

The waffle is a later offshoot of the basic wafer idea, but taking it to an opposite extreme. Where the wafer served as a metaphor for fasting and self-denial, the waffle became the Protestant symbol of festive luxury. Made with eggs, cream, and other rich ingredients originally forbidden during fast days, the waffle evolved as a type of fat cake baked between irons in imitation of pain perdu or French toast. It first appeared in the Low Countries in connection with Christmas, New Year's, Twelfth Night, and Carnival, employing the distinctive honeycomb pattern to render it crispier than a deep-fried slice of toast. Like wafer irons, waffle irons were often given as wedding gifts, and it was the Dutch who settled in New York who brought the waffle custom to North America, for it was otherwise not well known to the English.

In the United States, waffle irons appeared in many eighteenth-century household inventories, especially those of well-to-do families. The popularity of waffles as a special occasion dish (for Sunday breakfast, for example) or as Christmas and New Year's confections gradually spread so that by the Civil War, waffles were available in most hotels, especially as a breakfast or supper food served plain or in combination with various meat fricassees. Ham gravy, chicken gravy, waffles made with a sweet potato batter, all of these and many more permutations appeared on hotel menus. By the early 1900s, once the automobile and the Sunday drive came into fashion, such main course waffle dishes were integrated into the menu of local tourist destinations catering to the Sunday clientele. Waffle dinners of the 1920s and 1930s even become a form of fund-raising for churches and fire companies.

The electric waffle iron, which first appeared in the 1890s, became a popular tool of the home economics movement, and a popular wedding gift by the end of World War I. It brought the eat-out experience full circle into the home not just for its convenience, but by lowering the perceived cost through boxed waffle mixes, canned gravy preparations, and the like. The processed waffle, entirely pre-made and frozen so that can be cooked in toasters or the microwave oven, is now the supermarket descendant of the rich confection of former times. The fat-free waffle with its New Age ingredients and designer flavors may not evoke a breakfast fit for kings. On the other hand, the costly honey drizzled over it, now imported from the Amazon jungle, can only provoke wonder from the gods of old, whose honeycombed cakes were once a metaphor for eternal life.

See also Bread ; Breakfast ; Christianity ; Christmas ; Epiphany ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Wheat: Wheat as a Food .


Meinardus, Otto. "Das Brot bei den Kopten," Brot und Gebäck. Ulm: Deutsches Brot Museum, October 1964.

Meinardus, Otto. Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999.

Pechstein, Klaus, and Ursula Ellwart, Festliches Backwerk: Holzmodel, Formen aus Zinn. Nuremberg: Das Nationalmuseum, 1981.

Tenschert, Helga. Engelsbrot und Eisenkuchen mit Oblaten. (Munich: BLV Verlagsgesellschart, 1983.

Thiele, Ernst. Waffeleisen und Waffelgebäcke. Cologne: Oda-Verlag, 1959.

Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook: Three Centuries of American Yuletide Sweets. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Wiswe, Hans. Kulturgeschichte der Kochkunst: Kochbücher und Rezepte aus zwei Jahrtausenden. Munich: H. Moos, 1970.

William Woys Weaver