Today is November 1. It’s an incredible day for me as my son has just awaken to find a house full of balloons, leftover Halloween Candy, and birthday gifts wrapped and ready for him to rip apart. It’s also a somber day for me because it’s also the day I lost my mother to cancer and AIDS related illness.
What does this have to do with chicken breading? Many people have asked me for the origin story of Waffles and Whatnot. I will, to the best of my ability, write that here for you.
I grew up very poor in a Florida town called Fort Pierce. It’s the birthplace of the US Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team which later became the SEALs most people know today. As a young child in a fatherless home, I watched my mom struggle to put food on the table. I can still remember when my mom worked several minimum wage jobs to put food on the table. Back then the minimum wage was $4 and I remember my mom being elated when it was raised to $4.25. It was odd for me because the postage stamp was also $.25 and the little juice drinks that came in a plastic container shaped like a barrel were also $.25. I did a little math and it meant my mom had to work about a half hour to buy a little juice for me and my six siblings. I didn’t think it was reasonable to ask her to do that.
My mom and family did an excellent job of teaching us how to fish, instead of handing us fish. I don’t meant that figuratively but literally. We used to augment the government subsidized foods we received with all kinds of fish we’d catch from the Florida canals and ocean. It was called “stretching” and the ladies of my family were great at teaching us how to stretch some Wonder bread, grits, and that delicious chunk of government cheese which, still today, was the best cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches. You combine those foods with some fresh caught mullet, bluegill, or sandperch and you had yourself a feast. Indeed, my upbringing as a non-wealthy child in Florida taught me the value of culinary creativity, resourcefulness, how to create “rib-sticking” food, and the power of hustling to survive.
As my mom went off to work at any of her various jobs, we’d be left to fend for ourselves. Whatever nourishment we didn’t receive from the free lunch program at school we’d have to essentially forage for. We didn’t go hungry. We learned to garden so we can grow collard greens, cabbage, sweet potatoes, etc. We’d pick oranges, grapefruit, mangos, and other fruit from the ample fruit trees scattered throughout the neighborhood. We could pick wild turnip and mustard greens from the sides of canal banks and we knew where to find the best deals on the cheapest foods. Places like Piggly Wiggly, Winn-Dixie, and Sav-A-Lot were our friends because we could be an additional discount on canned goods or boxes of cereal if they were damaged. Milk that was within a day or two of expiring were also deeply discounted and products like ground beef that had begun to turn brown could be purchased for pennies on the dollar or food stamps.
Indeed, we were well fed and, since everyone around us lived under the same conditions, we were happily oblivious to the fact we were poor. However, what we didn’t know is we were slowly killing ourselves, poisoning our bodies with industrial pesticides and setting our community up for the horrors of heart disease, diabetes, strokes, obesity, mental illness, and so many other food related illnesses.
When tending to the gardens it was imperative to dust the leafy greens with Round-Up insect killer because everyone knew it was the best at preventing the caterpillars from destroying the greens. There were many instances in my life while fishing in Florida’s irrigation ditches like Header Canal or Taylor Creek that the water was foamy and hundreds of dead and bloated fish could be seen floating down the stream. There were even times that if the fish were close enough to the bank and still breathing; my mom would have me net them because it was essentially a free meal. It wasn’t until I was a man battling the evils of the industrial food complex that I realized those fish had been poisoned by the industrial pesticides and herbicides used in the citrus groves and sugar cane fields that decorate Florida’s landscape.
Again you ask, what does this have to do with waffles?
After leaving for the Army in 1998, I’d returned home on leave to find my mom suffering from a horrible disease called Pemphigus Vulgaris. It’s an auto-immune disease that my mom was susceptible to due to her HIV compromised immune system. As my memory serves me, it looked like someone had taken bloody corn flakes and superglued them to her lips before taking a vile of the most pissed fire ants and dumping them into her mouth to bite all the fleshy parts. Sound gross and painful? Imagine having to eat and swallow medication with a mouth so disfigured it can make you cry just to feel your breath flowing across your lips. No human should have to live like that. More importantly for me, no person should have to live like that due to their food.
That’s right, I said it. It was my mom’s food that was now the perpetrator of insidious betrayal. My mom, one of America’s longest surviving HIV patients, had ingested so many pesticides and herbicides throughout her life that those chemicals now interacted with and prevented her lifesaving medications from working. Those juices I mentioned earlier were filled with food additives and dyes like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), Yellow #5, Red #40, Blue #2, etc which wreak havoc on the human body over time. The government cheese, I later found, wasn’t cheese at all but a cheese product. It’s creamy nature was due to certain additives infused in the recipe which collect in our cells to later be released. That time-release effect allows so many chemicals and additives to be Generally Recognized As Safe or GRAS by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and thus we continue to consume them on an industrial scale.
The heartbreak I felt while watching my mom suffer from some truly horrific diseases inspired me to try and change her eating habits, along with her doctors. I researched different foods recommended by her medical team, things like organic quinoa as a replacement for grits and organic kale as a replacement for collard greens. I sought various ways to cook chicken and fish as an alternative to southern classic deep fried everything. As we tried these alternatives with my mom, she eventually rejected them as it was just too unfamiliar with her life’s experiences, not readily available, and seemingly required a bachelor’s in nutrition science to understand what her body needed. It was too much. There had to be another way.
While helping my mom sort her tackle box of pills one day, I realized there were many supplements that could be replaced with food. For example, watching her choke down two huge coconut oil capsules for inflammation, I realized I could add that to a cornbread Johnny cake that she could eat with some greens and get the same value from. My journey began. I surveyed the box and found numerous daily values that I could replace with foods or spices. I visited the local health food store and purchased high quality ingredients, measured out my mom’s daily dosages, added them to a bowl, and began the process of figuring out what I could create with them.
My first attempts were waffles but they were disgusting to me. The amount of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, was overpowering and a bit pungent. However, I refused to give up and at some point realized I could make a fried chicken coating. That day, there in my kitchen, I birthed the famous Waffles and Whatnot chicken batter which I affectionately named Bad Ass Yard Bird (BAYB); paying homage to my mom’s nickname for my childhood pet rooster, Dan. I then realized I could be a lot more effective if I split the ingredients amongst various foods instead of trying to get them all in one. Enter Waffles and Whatnot’s signature dish, the BAYB. The dish consists of three strips of hand-cut free-range chicken that would provide my mom her daily amount of protein (hence why I had to hand-cut and weigh the strips), our Gourmet Apple Cinnamon waffle with contains my mom’s daily dose of Ceylon Cinnamon and coconut oil, and house made whipped cream which I could infuse with her probiotics and vitamin D.
There’s more to the story and I’ll share in subsequent blog posts. Is our food healthy? No, I wouldn’t say it’s healthy like eating fresh, raw, organic greens and grass-fed free-range meat. However, it’s a healthier alternative to the foods still being produced by the industrial food complex that contributes greatly to the health crisis being faced by this country’s disadvantaged communities. Moreover, as I grow this company and acquire greater resources, i.e. capital and brainpower, our foods will continually and perpetually be adapted to address health concerns. Essentially, the fast food industry and industrial food complex has been allowed to gradually swap out our beef for beef product, cheese for cheese product, and natural ingredients for complex compounds you’d need a chemist to decode. Waffles and Whatnot is using fast foods, familiar to disadvantaged communities, to put health back in food. Food is medicine, and Waffles and Whatnot is a med student burning the midnight oil.