Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Waffling Around

QUESTION: I recently purchased an old electric waffle iron at a garage sale. Are these things collectible and can I still use it?

ANSWER: Mmmmmmm. Just the mention of waffles reminds me of the smell of them baking on a cold Sunday morning, then smothered in butter and warm maple syrup, and perhaps topped with strawberries and whipped cream. But I digress...

Depending on the age of your electric waffle iron, it has the potential to be collectible. Small appliances like this are just coming into their own as collectibles. However, if you plan to use it, you had better have the appliance checked out and the wire replaced with a higher-voltage cord by a certified appliance repair dealer. Once that’s done and the waffle iron cleaned up, you should be able to enjoy delicious old-time waffles whenever you like.

Before the waffle iron became electrified, the making of waffles had an interesting history. Traditional waffle irons consisted of two hinged metal plates, molded to create the honeycomb pattern, which the maker held over a wood fire to bake the batter poured between them, one side at a time. Knowing when to turn the iron took skill learned by trial and error since these early waffle irons had no temperature controls.

Some historians believe the waffle dates back to ancient Greece, when Athenians baked obelios—flat cakes held between two metal plates—over hot coals. The word waffle evolved from wafer, one of the only foods early Catholics could eat during fasting periods because they contained no milk, eggs, or animal fats. Monks were the only ones making these wafers until the late 12th century, when lay bakeries began making a tastier version which they called waffles.

Eventually, waffle iron makers molded the plates with religious symbols and the familiar honeycomb pattern, which was supposed to represent interlocking crosses. In 1270, an special guild to train the street vendors who sold waffles came into existence.

Peasants soon began making their own flour and water waffles, although some started adding eggs and honey to make them lighter and sweeter. Even Geoffrey Chaucer mentions waffles in his Canterbury Tales: "He sent her sweetened wine and well-spiced ale/ And waffles piping hot out of the fire."

Waffles became a staple of the Dutch diet by the 1620s and early immigrants brought them to New Amsterdam, eventually to become New York..

But the waffle wouldn’t achieve nationwide appeal until Thomas Jefferson brought a waffle iron back from France in the 1790s as a souvenir. He had his cook make and serve them at the White House, which helped popularize "waffle parties."

It wasn’t until 1869 that Cornelius Swarthout patented the first waffle iron in the U.S.. What made his waffle iron unique was that he joined the cast iron plates by a hinge that swiveled in a cast-iron collar.

Soon after the invention of electricity came the electric waffle iron. Lucas D. Sneeringer eventually designed the first electric heating elements that used a built-in thermostat to prevent overheating, a common problem with early versions. With his revolutionary design and General Electric funding, the first electric waffle iron rolled off the assembly line on July 26, 1911.

While the first electric waffle iron did the job—the process of making waffles this way is a relatively simple one—it didn’t look very pretty. So designers set about making the exterior of the waffle iron more attractive. Other innovations, like an iron that could cook two waffles at the same time, soon followed.  Charles M. Cole invented the first twin waffle iron in 1926, but it wasn’t until 1939 when Karl Ratliff designed the "Twin-O-Matic" for the New York World's fair that it really caught on with the public.

By the time the New York World’s Fair rolled around, Art Deco design had influenced everything from dishes to utensils and small appliances. Some waffle irons, like the Hotpoint waffle iron by Edison General Electric, became works of art in themselves. Some resembled flying saucers, having lost their legs and taking on a lower, sleeker look. One of these was General Electric’s Diana, designed by August Propernick. Toastmaster and Sunbeam soon got in on the act and began producing their own electric waffle irons.

It’s said that in the Midwest, the waffle iron holds a special place in marriages. It seems that the nuptials aren’t complete until a  relative gives a waffle iron to the happy couple. As long as the waffle iron remains intact and in use at least once a year, the marriage will prosper. If the couple neglects the waffle iron or lets it fall into disrepair, then so will same happen to their marriage.

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