Chicken and waffles ice cream a learning experience for Elon writing students

Students in PWR 297: Writing as Inquiry, along with Smitty's Ice Cream, are putting a new spin on a Southern favorite in the name of research.

Chicken and waffles is a Southern delicacy that meshes two staples of breakfast and dinner into one delicious meal. The sweetness of the waffle pairs perfectly with the saltiness of the chicken, as a layer of warm maple syrup tops it all off — it’s enough to make your mouth water.

Now, imagine that flavor in one of the world’s most popular desserts.

“To be honest, I just love chicken and waffles,” said Erica Payne ’20. “I’m from Connecticut, so I hadn’t really had it until I came to school in North Carolina. It’s one of my favorite things about living here, I just love Southern food in general.”

As it turns out, Payne’s love of the famous dish is what inspired the newest experiment for Smitty’s Ice Cream.

As a part of Lecturer in Environmental Studies and English Michael Strickland’s PWR 297: Writing as Inquiry course, students write about food and travel as they learn the importance of active inquiry in rhetorical writing.

Each fall, Strickland teaches the art of food and travel writing through a variety of assignments, one of which gets students to focus their writing and research on a specific food item. Past topics have included doughnuts, barbecue and biscuits. When this semester’s students decided to study the increasingly popular trend of savory ice cream flavors, Payne’s love of chicken and waffles would soon take a new form.

Amy Nakhle serves a cup of chicken and waffles ice cream.

Students wanted to find a way to create chicken and waffles flavored ice cream and study reactions to the savory treat. Strickland took the idea to Smitty’s Ice Cream, not actually expecting the company to agree to create it.

“We were immediately interested in it,” said Smitty’s co-owner Amy Nakhle. “We didn’t even hesitate. Just the word ‘creative’ and the word ‘Elon’ — we immediately respond to both.”

With that, the team at Smitty’s quickly got to work, constructing the new ice cream flavor that includes real chicken skin from the kitchen at Burlington Beer Works as well as waffles, caramel, maple syrup and browned butter.

“It’s so cool,” Payne said. “I’m very proud of it. It was just kind of on a whim. We were talking about it in class, and it turned into something bigger than we thought it was going to be.”

Smitty’s and Strickland’s students debuted the new ice cream flavor at the downtown Elon Smitty’s location and outside the Moseley Center Tuesday. The event served as a taste test for the new flavor, but also as a research project for the class. Students conducted surveys with customers before and after they tried the new flavor.

A student tastes the new Smitty’s chicken and waffles flavor.

“One of the things they’re looking at is if people come and try the chicken and waffles, do they then buy some or do they default to vanilla or chocolate,” said Strickland, who is also director of the Center for Environmental Studies. “We correlate that with their perceptions of themselves as to how picky of an eater they are.”

This food research is part of an ongoing assignment in Strickland’s Writing as Inquiry course called the “Highway 64 Project.” For the project, students travel across the state of North Carolina via Highway 64, which stretches from the mountains to the coast, experiencing new cultures and trying new, local foods. Strickland requires students to eat at local restaurants — no chains — and then write about their experiences.

The goal of the project is to help students get outside the campus bubble and learn about new cultures and people in surrounding communities. Strickland models his coursework after the ideals of the late celebrity chef and documentarian Anthony Bourdain.

“In order to learn about somebody or some place, eat what the local folks eat and engage them in talking about it,” Strickland said. “I’m always pushing the students to try dishes that they aren’t used to, find out what local folks are doing, how they cook it and those kinds of things. It’s part of learning about culture and people.”

Strickland’s course represents a broader goal of Elon’s Professional Writing and Rhetoric major to connect the liberal arts to worlds beyond the walls of academia. In their courses, faculty prepare students to be successful communicators in their daily lives and future professions.

So, for Strickland, the chicken and waffles experiment was about more than just ice cream.

“I do think that that’s a real part of what we call engaged learning here at Elon is to give students that opportunity to pitch ideas and not just respond to assignments and jump through hoops,” Strickland said.

As for the new chicken and waffles flavor, Nakhle says it will now go through a testing phase and, depending on responses, could become a regular item at the area’s three Smitty’s locations.