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The Rise, Fall, And Redemption of Belgian Waffles

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Aug 24, 2015

This week's episode of The Sporkful podcast is up! Listen through the player or iTunes/Podcasts app. (And please subscribe!)

It was 1964. Beatlemania had just taken America by storm, and the World’s Fair was kicking off in New York City. That summer, another hot import arrived on our shores: the Belgian waffle.

Half a century later, those exotic gaufres Belges have settled down and assimilated. And the next generation, like many rebellious kids of hard-working immigrants, are shaking things up.

This week on The Sporkful, we talk to MariePaule Vermersch, who helped her parents run that famous Belgian waffle stand at the World's Fair 51 years ago.

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And we talk to a young waffle-maker who's shaking things up with some new concoctions. But he still reveres the traditional methods. Unfortunately, according to MariePaule, that's not often the case.

"Now…waffles are everywhere," she says. "But [my mother] always says, 'But they’re not my waffles.'"

In Belgium, there are many different types of waffles -- each named for its city of origin. MariePaule's family sold Brussels waffles at the World's Fair. But they adopted the name "Belgian waffles" for their American customers (who were hazy on their Belgian geography and more likely to associate "Brussels" with green vegetables).

Brussels waffles are exceptionally light, crisp, and deep-welled:

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These are not your limp, American breakfast waffles, even if the word "Belgian" is applied to them.

MariePaule's family's waffles were an instant hit with fair-goers.

"People just couldn’t believe how light [it was]. It just melts," she recalls. "Sometimes we had fights at the counter when it came time to close. People [were saying] 'please one more, one more!'"

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With all that success, you'd think MariePaule's family would be rich and/or famous. But they aren't, and that remains a sore point for MariePaule and her mother, who's now in her 90's.

They feel they never got the credit they deserved, and they're disappointed with the poor quality of most of the imitation Belgian waffles out there. In our conversation, MariePaule talks about her father's bad decisions and her mother's finally forgiving him.

Fifty years later, the next generation of Belgian waffles in America are going strong. In New York City, relative newcomer Wafels & Dinges, a food truck founded by a Belgian expat, is carrying on the legacy that began that summer in Queens -- but with a twist.

“[We] branch out a little bit and take what waffles should be and try to play around with what waffles can be," says general manager Steve Lipschutz. "Why not make an ice cream sandwich or a waffle with smoked salmon?”

What does MariePaule think about putting everything from eggs (below) to pulled pork on a waffle?

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Listen in to the full episode to hear MariePaule and Steve debate the finer points of Belgian-American waffles -- from regional varieties to the best weather for eating particular types of waffles.

They have their differences, but they do agree on the best way to eat this Belgian street food (whether you're in a tea house on the North Sea or a street corner in Manhattan):

Pick it up with your hands and dig in! (And don't even think about cutting it with a fork and knife!!)

"That would be like eating a hot dog or a pretzel on the street in New York with a knife," Steve says.

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If listening to this episode has you craving hot, crisp waffles, MariePaule's family recipe lives on for ONLY TWO WEEKS each year at the New York State Fair. Head to Maurice's Belgian Waffles in the Diary Barn. (The family that runs Maurice's bought the rights to the Vermersch family waffle recipe.)

Or if you have a cast iron waffle-maker hanging around, try whipping up some fresh waffles at home. MariePaule's recipe is a strict family secret, but this approximation got the seal of approval from old-timers in Queens who tasted those original Belgian waffles back in 1964.

This week's episode of The Sporkful podcast is up! Listen through the player or iTunes/Podcasts app. (And please subscribe!)

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Interstitial music in this episode by BWN Music:

- "Birthday Party" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt

- "On The Floor" by Cullen Fitzpatrick

- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick

- "Playground Panic" by Cullen Fitzpatrick

- "Coffee And Sunshine" by Erick Anderson

Photos: courtesy of Wafels & Dinges, FlickrCC/Joe Haupt, FlickrCC/DJ Berson, FlickrCC/Oriol Salvador, FlickrCC/Erin Borrini

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