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Before there was cheesesteak, there was catfish & waffles

by Dan Macey
Posted 11/28/23

During much of the late 1800s, it wasn’t the creek that had tourists and day-tripping residents traveling to the shores of the Wissahickon. 

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Let's eat

Before there was cheesesteak, there was catfish & waffles


During much of the late 1800s, it wasn’t the creek that had tourists and day-tripping residents traveling to the shores of the Wissahickon. 

It was catfish and waffles – a meal that was synonymous with Philadelphia at the time and as famous as cheesesteaks are today. 

The dish, actually an entire meal, typically consisted of fried catfish, pepper hash – a traditional condiment made from a sweet-and-sour combination of cabbage, peppers and spices – fried potatoes, fried or stewed chicken and lightly salted and buttered waffles. The waffles would have been made in a waffle iron and thin,  almost like an Italian pizzelle cookie. The catfish would have been mixed with a milk-based sauce and served over the wafer-thin waffles. 

Much of the dish’s popularity arose from the fact that the fish could be caught in the morning and served within hours at picturesque restaurants along the banks of the river – a circumstance which overfishing would eventually end. 

Originally called the “Wissahickon supper,” Catfish and Waffles was first served at the Falls of the Schuylkill Hotel, one of a string of roadhouses along the Schuylkill River that catered to steamboat passengers riding upriver from the city’s Fairmount section each hour. 

East Falls, once known as the Falls of Schuylkill, soon became the place to go for the popular dish – and a host of roadhouses and inns along the river in the area served it up – including the Wissahickon Hall and Bobby Evan’s Hotel. 

And by 1848, the Falls Hotel and Tavern had renamed itself after the popular dish – and became the Old Catfish and Coffee House.

“The proprietor is prepared to serve up breakfasts, dinners and suppers, to parties, at the shortest notice,” an 1848 advertisement for the Old Catfish and Coffee House announced.  ”A ride to the Falls of Schuylkill, with a Catfish and Coffee Supper, has long been justly celebrated among city epicures.”

Apparently, the meals were very memorable. Charles Austin Whiteshot, who pined of catfish and waffles in his 1905 autobiography, “The Oil Well Driller: A History of the World’s Greatest Enterprise, the Oil Industry, put it this way:

“I recall that it was a roadhouse somewhere in the vicinity of Philadelphia and on an average of once a week we would visit it and regale our appetites with these delectable viands. … I would thank my lucky stars if I could publicly pay tribute to the name of the man who served catfish and waffles as the leading feature of his bill of fare. I ate them until I broke out with a rash, gorged myself near to bursting and never grew tired of the diet… The catfish is the most delicious morsel that swims our waters, not much to look at, perhaps, but in the hands of the caterer he becomes a thing of beauty and a joy forever.”

A citywide phenomenon

It may have been born on the banks of the Schuylkill, but catfish and waffles soon became a citywide dish. 

Some of the finer eating establishments in Philadelphia, further from the river, began serving the dish – including Kurgler’s, the self-proclaimed “finest, largest and most beautifully appointed restaurant in Philadelphia” in the early 1900s.

While some of the roadhouses battered their catfish in a mix of corn meal before frying, Kurgler’s recipe served its catfish boiled, then chopped and mixed in a white sauce over the waffle.

According to William Woys Weaver, a Philadelphia-based food historian, other roadhouses, including the Wild Cat Falls Inn, served their own twist on the dish – offering snapping turtle over waffles, crayfish over waffles, and duck over waffles. Each was served with a helping of pepper hash and a side of three fried oysters during the colder months and fried clams in the summer.

These “waffle palaces”  would typically serve the wafers with fried catfish, fried or stewed chicken, or steak, as well as pepper hash and fried potatoes. Coffee came with the meal, while waffles with sprinkled sugar and cinnamon were extra, according to Weaver. 

The basic dishes were arranged into price categories, from relatively cheap and simple to a full spread with everything on the menu. Guests could reserve whole tables and arrive as a group and create a shared menu to fit their inclinations or budgets. A number of these roadhouses created their own artificial ponds to corral the catfish for catch more easily. 

Also, according to Weaver, catfish and waffles inspired the German immigrants who settled outside of Philadelphia and later became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch when they offered chicken and waffles to market the Amish countryside to tourists. They replaced catfish with chicken since it was more readily available all year round.

Dan Macey has worked as a food stylist and food historian. He is on the board of the Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley, which has been holding programs on food history in and around Philadelphia for over 25 years. Go to www.historicfoodways.org for more information about the non-profit group.