Paean to the Belgian Waffle

Of all the world’s Kingdoms and States, why did I choose to ship myself to Belgium? People have asked high and low: ‘Did you have a personal tie?,’ ‘Where is that?’ and the slightly targeted ‘I thought you studied Greek.’ I gave different answers, honest each time: To speak French. To prance around Europe while I clean up my life. The beer? The fries? The waffles? The waffles. And that was before I even knew what they tasted like. Before I understood the joys- the sweet glories!– of the Belgian waffle.

I’ll correct myself: ‘Belgian’ waffles, in that terminology and style, are an American thing. No Belgian is forking a pile of thick waffles swallowed by strawberries and whipped cream. Although those are delicious and worthy of their own love affair, that’s not what we’re dealing with here, that’s not the Belgian way. It’s the same situation as calling perfectly American fries ‘French’. A marketing thing, perhaps.

My personality is insatiably and eternally addictive, and the waffle is my most recent drug of choice. You may be one of my loved ones and are wondering what I’ve been doing for the past five months. Put simply, I’ve been eating waffles. In Belgium, I can get my fix around any corner at any time of day. The breakfast waffles, the pre-lunch waffles, and then after-waffle waffles. I won’t do waffles for dinner because I am not a monster and I know that dinner is for baguettes. 

Belgian waffles are fabled worldwide for a good reason–they are the absolute bomb. While many variations exist, there are two main families of waffle in Belgium: the Brussels Waffle and the Liège Waffle. The Brussels Waffle (Bruxelles, if you’re trying to be cool, like me) is closer to our waffles back home. It’s a nice fluffy rectangle, garnished with just about any disgusting sweet thing imaginable. Options range from bananas to speculoos to kiwis. This waffle breed is, in my opinion, inferior to the aforementioned Liège waffle, but the Bruxelles Bourghmaster (the word they use when they’re trying to say ‘mayor’) may very well disagree. 

But the real star of this show and forever my muse is the delicious Liège Waffle. So sweet and so modest- it’s about half the size of a Brussels Waffle, therefore it’s important to tell yourself to eat two at a time. These beautiful golden-brown squares have no topping other than caramelized sugar to joyously crunch through after it’s been hardened and crystalized in the hot waffle iron.

Paean to the Belgian Waffle

Liège waffles are everywhere, and many food trucks that sell them aren’t even run by native Belgians. My favorite ‘gauffrerie’ is around the corner from the university where I work. It’s owned by a Peruvian couple who seem to be open whenever I need them. A waffle goes for €1.50 and they are happy to take the pennies that otherwise disappear into the bottomless pits of my pockets. The inside of their shop beeps and buzzes as the cooking timers sound off. I watch the wafflemann scrape the caramelized goop form his black irons. It is sticky and untamed. Like self-perpetuating hot magma, it spreads and drips onto the counter and the chef is at its mercy. Clean-up must get ugly. 

Now, I am no waffle expert. I have yet to try the savory waffle sandwiches eaten as a daily lunch. I will never be able to report on the nutella-smothered waffle, which I’m sure, if the rumors about nutella are true, is a game changer. (I’m allergic to nuts). 

But I’m not the first one who can’t seem to handle the abundance of such a snack! Waffles have been changing the game for centuries. The waffle as we know it has been around since at least the 1300s. Some Youtube videos trace its history back to Ancient Greece, but people always try to do that. Here is the waffle’s début in the art world:

Pieter Bruegel’s Het gevecht tussen Carnaval en Vasten 1559

Zoom in to the waffle part:

Apparently waffles were also used as hats back in the day. Who am I to question medieval waffle culture of the Low Countries? But there you have it. These men look like they’re gambling over their waffles. Addiction is a slippery slope, folks. 

Fast forward to when King François of France loved waffles so much that he had a set of waffle irons cast in pure silver. His successor, King Charles IX, introduced history’s first waffle legislation. There were, to no surprise, lots of fights between waffle vendors at the time, so the new law stated that they remain at least four yards away from each other. This is another quite relatable piece of waffle history. It may indeed be a precursor to the 20th century ‘leggo my eggo’ brawls of our childhoods. 

It didn’t take long for waffle frenzy to cross the pond. Colonial Americans of the Mid-Atlantic regularly held what were known as ‘wafel frolics’, parties centered around the preparation and eating of waffles. It was at these festivities that our ancestors (or, if you prefer, waffle-eating predecessors) brought maple syrup into the equation. And from there on waffles as we know them travelled from frolics at Monticello onto the breakfast plates of America. 

I am more than happy to dig my Liège waffle addiction deeper over the next four months. It is a recklessly high-caloric lifestyle that can only truly be lived in Belgium, and one I’d recommend to anyone who visits. If you end up here, report immediately to the nearest gauffrerie. You can follow your nose, as the smell is unmistakable. And the best thing is that they’re never too far. 

Joseph DeBrine is a 2018-2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at l’Université Catholique de Louvain. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 2018 with majors in Classical Studies and Linguistics. After graduating, he moved back to his home of Albuquerque, New Mexico and worked at his parents’ small business. Joseph loves language and writing fiction, and hopes to engage with the community in Louvain-la-Neuve by taking Dutch classes and joining creative writing groups.

 Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.