Saturday, March 25, 2023
Ralph and I have a weekend ritual. It involves food, as most things in my life do. Every weekend I sleep until I’m done sleeping then get up and make weekend breakfast.
Weekend breakfast almost always consists of bacon and eggs and pancakes. Occasionally we swap out pancakes for French toast, or I throw in grits, or fresh strawberries or peaches if it’s that time of year.
But today is National Pancake Day so we’re paying homage to that flap of flour and all the goodness it entails.
Since I obsess about these things, I looked up pancakes, because what is a pancake, really, and why do we even have them?
The internet says pancakes have existed since 600 BC. Apparently they waxed poetic about pancakes even then, because the first reference is attributed to an actual poet, and the term for this culinary miracle was tagenias. They were made with wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and curdled milk.
Turns out pancakes are fairly diverse. Some are made of spelt. Some are topped with honey and sesame. They’re called pannekoeke in South Africa, made with bananas in Uganda, and turned into a work of soufflé art in Japan.
Wikipedia told me this. When you have a minute, go look up pancakes on Wikipedia. You will wonder why you have never heard of all these delightful variations on pancakes and then lament your sad culinary existence.
France and Poland have turned them into crepes. In Greece they can be topped with vegetables. In Sweden they go all in and have a special pan called a plättlagg just for pancakes, which can make seven at once. I’m totally going to Sweden.
Pancakes are like breakfast pizza. Sort of a delivery mechanism for just about anything you want to put in your face. Except ham and pineapple.
In my house we mostly make chocolate chip pancakes. There has been some debate over whether the chocolate chips should go in the pancakes or on top of the pancakes. Currently, “on top” has won.
Kind of pancakes I like: pumpkin. Especially if there are pecans involved.
Kind of pancakes I don’t like: ones with holes.
I don’t understand the holes. Maybe it’s too much baking soda or not enough buttermilk but I’ve been to more than one restaurant where the pancakes are very obviously jealous of the Swiss cheese.
Once, when Ralph and I were on a quest for the perfect pancake, we drove over half of New Jersey looking for a place that actually had them. There is a surprising lack of pancake in New Jersey.
At any rate, we went to a sort of hole-in-the-wall place that looked promising, because hole-in-the-wall places usually get things like pancakes right. You just know there is some 300 pound guy in the back slathering butter on the griddle and pouring plate-sized gobs of batter.
This one, however, did not get pancakes right. They were the worst pancakes I ever had in my life. There were so many holes even the chocolate chips fell out.
You can’t really talk about pancakes without talking about Howard Johnson’s.
The best pancakes in memory existed at Howard Johnson’s on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. Each summer my family would vacation there and we’d go to breakfast in the circular building on the boardwalk with the crowned roof and bright orange ramp curving around the exterior.
We’d eat pancakes and they’d be the softest, squishiest, most syrupy things you’ve ever eaten.
Alas, Howard Johnson’s closed decades ago. The building is still there but the pancakes are not. It has since been painted gray, I presume to demonstrate its mourning for deliciousness past.
If a restaurant can’t get pancakes right, I have no use for it.
There’s only a single instance when I can recall sending food back at a restaurant and it wasn’t pancakes. I had ordered ahi rare, and it came more like canned tuna. It was so woefully destroyed that I sent it back to the kitchen.
But there are many times I can remember mentioning the pancakes to restaurant staff.
I mentioned the pancakes with holes.
At one of our favorite restaurants near our condo in New Jersey, they had great pancakes, until suddenly they didn’t. I mentioned that to them many times.
I mentioned the decline in pancakes at a local restaurant here in Franklin.
Sometimes they comp you the pancakes, which is nice, but doesn’t make up for a lack of pancakes.
Pancakes topped with strawberries are excellent. Blueberries will do but always need a bit of lemon zest. Whipped cream is a treat but ice cream is better. Nuts and granola make better fillings than toppings. A heart-attack amount of butter is required.
Lucky for me it’s Saturday, and I have a weekend full of pancakes to enjoy. Before I go I will leave you with this story.
A couple of years ago we were having breakfast with some cousins at a restaurant in Brigantine that makes excellent pancakes. My cousin [name redacted to protect his innocence] and I were getting a bit giddy about them and he proudly told me that he makes his pancakes at home from scratch.
Always open to fabulous new pancake recipes, I excitedly asked how he makes them.
“I use Aunt Jemima mix and put in milk and eggs.”
Had my mouth been full of pancakes at the time, he might have been wearing them. Alas, there was room for only one pancake snob at that table, and I guess it had to be me.
Photo: the old Howard Johnson’s, still orange, though it is no longer so. The building is still there. They do not serve pancakes.