Aug. 24, 2012 at 9:03 AM ET
Before IHOP and the Waffle House, there was the 1964 World Fair in New York City, where Belgian waffles first hit the culinary scene. Americans swooned for the sweet pastries with a slight crunch, conveniently dubbed “Bel-gem waffles” by creator Maurice Vermersch.
Today, nearly 50 years later, Americans celebrate what has become an established love affair on Aug. 24, National Waffle Day — a holiday that doesn’t even exist in the food’s birthplace (and falls on the anniversary of the U.S. patent for waffle irons). But Americans tend to do their waffles a bit differently. Or so Belgium native Thomas DeGeest, 41, discovered after giving up his job at IBM in 2007 to start Wafels & Dinges, a wildly popular food truck in New York City serving up bites inspired by his childhood.
When DeGeest started out, he looked to tradition and began serving the two most popular types of waffles in Belgium. The Liege wafel, a soft, chewier variety, has its converts, but the Brussels wafel, with it’s airy inside and soft crunch, is DeGeest’s favorite.
Customers, however, didn’t stick to the menu for long. “It’s New York, right, so people do crazy things,” DeGeest mused.
In this case, “crazy” means piling your waffle high with every conceivable topping, from the truck’s "spekuloos" sauce (made from Belgium cookies) and whipped cream to pulled pork and bacon.
Yes, you can order pulled pork on your waffle (with a side of Kool-Aid infused pickles) — proof perhaps that the Belgium pastry is one of the most versatile around. Most opt for just a couple of toppers, but some adventurous eaters seem to want all the ingredients in the kitchen on theirs.
“Waffles have a fun texture,” DeGeest said. “You can make your batter in many different ways.”
The self-described “waffle master” didn’t include savory items on his menu at first, but requests from regulars soon inspired experimentation. One of the more interesting creations to come out of this was a waffle with bacon and syrup-infused batter.
“It’s totally against the rules in Belgium,” DeGeest laughed. “But it’s a free country and people can put on their waffles whatever they want.”
“We actually encourage it,” general manager Steve Lipschutz, 28, said while serving up a powdered concoction with a healthy topping of Nutella.
The Wafels & Dinges team was recently put to the test when a catering customer asked the four food trucks at his birthday party to make a dish with Brussels sprouts. Their “de Sprussels” waffle, packed with garlic, chives, cloves and nutmeg, was a winner. They’ve since added it to the menu as a special, concerned at first that no one would bite. But, they always do.
“We call it the waffle for people who hate Brussels sprouts,” Lipschutz said.
DeGeest likes to innovate, but his personal waffle preferences are “very boring.”
“For me the most important thing is if someone can bake and yeast the waffle correctly,” he added.
Even those weaned on diner waffles made from pancake batter instead of yeast can spot the real thing when they see it.
“I’ve never had anything like this,” one lunchtime patron, Robin Secilmis, said outside of a truck on 46th St. and 6th Ave. in midtown Manhattan. “It’s to die for.”
In honor of National Waffle Day, the team will be serving up free waffles at locations around New York City.
Are you a fan of waffles? Tell us how you like yours in the comments below.
Danika Fears is a TODAY.com intern who is pretty sure she chose waffles over pancakes as a kid just as an excuse to eat whipped cream in the morning.