Chicken and waffles is a pretty popular dish in southeastern Pennsylvania, especially in Pennsylvania Dutch communities where they are often served at church, hotel, and fire-hall suppers. One hundred years ago, the chicken and waffles meal was considered representative of Southeastern and Central Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. The meal, often mistaken for a traditional Southern dish, has seen a resurgence in the last decade. You might even spot it on a gastropub menu.
The savory meal’s antecedent, however, goes back to the early 1800s in the form of catfish and waffle dinners served by hotel-taverns (a.k.a. roadhouses) along the Schuylkill River. This unique meal was long recognized by local and national food writers as something distinct to Philadelphia well into the early 20th century. Called “waffles and catfish” in other parts of the country, the delicacy was also known as “catfish and coffee” since it usually began with fried fish and ended with coffee.
Angling for a Good Meal
Perhaps no place equaled the Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River for fishing in the early 1800s. Annalist John Watson, in his Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania (1830), told of the bounty of fish, including large-mouthed catfish, in the Schuylkill. Cornelius Weygandt wrote specifically of the allure of catfishing along the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill in his book, The Wissahickon Hills (1930). The word Wissahickon is, after all, derived from the Lenape words “Wissha mechan,” meaning “catfish creek.”
By the mid-19th century, both the upper Schuylkill River and the Wissahickon Creek had become a popular destination for tourists and day trippers from Philadelphia. Several taverns sprang up to cater to their need for a meal or a drink. One such watering hole, The Falls of the Schuylkill Hotel, was operated by Mrs. Robert Watkins, who originated the “Wissahickon supper” of catfish and waffles. Her roadhouse was the second pub from the city on Ridge Road, served by steamboats on the Schuylkill River that brought passengers upriver from Philadelphia’s Fairmount area every hour during the day. Soon, it became unthinkable to journey into the Wissahickon Valley without stopping at Watkins’ tavern or some other place to feast on catfish and waffles.
In 1848 the Falls Hotel was run by John Knisell and the tavern was renamed Old Catfish and Coffee House, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Knisell advertised that “a ride to the Falls of Schuylkill, with a catfish and coffee supper, has long been justly celebrated among city epicures.” The unique dish was picked up by other local inns and became popular with the pleasure-seekers from the city who took steamers or rode out to the Falls in carriages. Gourmets especially loved blue catfish, “caught at ebb-tide from the pure spring waters of the Schuylkill,” according to Knisell’s advertisement.
The meal itself was much more than just catfish and waffles. The typical Wissahickon supper consisted of fried catfish with pepper hash, fried potatoes, beefsteaks, fried or stewed chicken, and lightly salted buttered waffles to accompany the spread. The meal could be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner. One secret to creating a good catfish and waffles meal was using only the freshest and crispiest waffles direct from the stove or waffle iron. Kugler’s Restaurant, famed for specializing in distinctively Philadelphia-style dishes, featured wafer-thin waffles in its recipe and even offered waffles made with Jersey sweet potatoes or white cornmeal. No sugar or any other sweetener was added to the batter, a ingredient strictly reserved for desert waffles.
The proprietors of a few Schuylkill roadhouses were not always scrupulous. Some would grab a live fish from a tank and tell patrons that it had been in the Wissahickon Creek only yesterday and that the tavern would kill and cook that very fish as they carried it into the kitchen. But the fish would be surreptitiously returned to the its watery holding cell while a fish that had been caught and prepared some time ago would be served to the customer.
Despite such chicanery, taverns along the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon became so famous with their catfish and waffle meals that people held weddings and anniversaries there. This helps account for how the Wissahickon Valley became so popular in the 1800s to married couple—a place of wild beauty, romantic notions, and fine fish dinners.
The roadhouses arranged the basic catfish and waffle dish into price categories, from relatively cheap and simple to a full banquet of everything on the menu. Wissahickon suppers appealed to people of modest means living in the countryside who knew in advance what they would get for their money. But affluent urbanites would also come to these remote taverns along the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon as a way to take in local color, especially since some of the places often featured bands playing popular tunes.
In the early 1900s these were the people who owned touring cars and who had disposable incomes to spend a evening indulging in the rustic charm of the roadhouses. People visiting Philadelphia from nearby cities and neighboring states especially wanted to experience an authentic catfish and waffle feast prepared in a bucolic tavern just outside the bustling City of Brotherly Love.
Clubs would also serve catfish and waffles, and both of the celebrated fishing clubs, The State in Schuylkill and the Fishing Company of St. Davids, made a point of serving the dish to their epicurean members. The historian of the State in Schuylkill reported that the catfish were laid in rows in a pan and fried in the best butter to a brown color. With some practice the cook would carefully turn and flip the fish without breaking any apart often with a group of admiring onlookers looking on.
Catfish and waffles became a popular meal for special occasions in modest households. The steak was generally left off the menu and the catfish was served as a prelude to chicken and waffles. Shoppers patronized fishing wharves and markets along the Delaware waterfront. In neighborhoods women carried trays of raw catfish on their heads and cried “catfish, catfish” up and down the city streets in the spring.
The Last Supper
The inns along the Wissahickon and Schuylkill rivers were no longer permitted to offer alcohol after the Fairmount Park Commission purchased much of the Wissahickon Valley in the late 1860s. The temperance movement was in full effect at that time, resulting in a decline of day trippers and tourists into Fairmount Park and up the Schuylkill River. By the early 1920s, most of the roadhouses had gone out of business, waffles and all, after repeated scrapes with liquor licensing authorities. Meanwhile, pollution in the Schuylkill River caused most of the catfish and other wildlife to die off. The Philadelphia Bulletin in 1924 noted that “it is not a pleasant thought that we drink water from a stream in which fish cannot live.”
Many of the roadhouses and taverns were torn down as the surrounding area was developed. The Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive is the only surviving chicken and waffle joint. Inn Yard Park between Ridge Avenue and East River Drive, was once the location of a famous inn with a long list of colorful names, including: Robert Evans Hotel, Bobby Evans’ House, House of Louis Tissot, The Fountain Park Inn, The Park Fountain Hotel, Vasey’s Inn, Hotel Turf Villa, and Cafe La Riviere.
Demolished in 1933, the riverside roadhouse served tourists and day trippers with Wissahickon suppers since at least 1838. As one of the most popular amusement resorts in Philadelphia, the place also offered fine musical entertainment by popular orchestras and bands for decades. The inn even hosted boxing and wrestling matches and served as a training camp in the early 20th century. It was also a favored spot for members of bicycle and driving clubs. Around 1899 there was a move to locate the Fairmount Park Driving Club at the tavern, then known as Vasey’s Inn.
The space along Ridge Avenue became part of Fairmount Park after 1933. A playground was built there and lasted until the 1970s when it was demolished. The land was then a softball field until recently after the surrounding community requested it be turned back into a park. The new recreational area was opened as the Inn Yard Park in 2010, with playground equipment installed the following year.
Since then, a group, the Friends of Inn Yard Park, has been working with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to install benches, signage, and other amenities, working to improve the park as part of the long-term improvement of the East Falls area. Street and sidewalk upgrades are also in the works. Advocates of the park plan to present a variety of programming including outdoor movie nights throughout the year.