my father’s pancakes

Growing up, most mornings my father would wake us bellowing, “Breakfast”. My childhood home was filled with yelling-- Not the angry type usually, but rather the kind of yelling that comes from being downstairs and trying to get the attention of someone upstairs. There was plenty of chasing, tickling, and laughter, all done at top volume. When it was time to feed the animals, one of us would stand on the front porch calling and calling until all were accounted for. The nearest neighbors were a field away, so we didn't worry about disturbing anyone.

We were not a family who did things quietly. My father, tall and bearded, was the best bellower of us all. His voice, deep and even, felt like it could shake the floorboards when he used it to its fullest extent. Even if he was having a simple conversation, I could hear the rumble of his voice from the floor above. The home I grew up in was a simple white wooden farmhouse built just around the turn of the 20th century near the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. There were three bedrooms upstairs, two family rooms and a kitchen downstairs. Of all of these rooms, the one I loved the most was the kitchen. It had two windows, one facing the north, with the Rappahanock River in the distance, the other facing east and looking out onto the back deck. There was a wooden island in the center, over which hung all of the well used pots and pans. The cast iron skillet and stew pot sat on the white enameled 1940’s stove. There were drips on the yellow walls from various cooking accidents. The rust and chocolate brown linoleum floor was cracked and peeling, and there was a big, round stain on the ceiling, just over the stove, that was a result of a leak from the bathtub above. My mother believed that separate dining rooms were a waste of space (at least in her house), so the table sat across from the island. A couple of my father’s paintings hung above the china cabinet. There was nothing froufrou about the kitchen.

On school days, my sister, mother, and I would make our way down the creaking wooden stairs, yawning and rubbing our eyes, to settle at the scarred kitchen table. With elbows on the table, Emily and I would wait for daddy to serve up oatmeal and wheat toast, or cold cereal (wheaties, cheerios, cornflakes—no sugared cereals for us) and toast, while mom poured us orange juice. Quietly, the four of us would eat our breakfast letting the voices of NPR’s Nina Tottenberg and Bob Edwards soak into our heads as we passed the butter, poured milk into our bowls, asked for more sugar. After 15-20 minutes one of our parents would say, “Okay girls, time to get ready.” We’d take our dishes to the sink and then, finally awake, race each other up the stairs, trying to beat the other to the shower. Weekday breakfasts were about nutrition, sustenance, and speed.

Breakfast on Saturday was another matter. We’d still get awakened with a thundering, “Breakfast!”. We’d still walk blearily to the kitchen, but instead of the boring weekday fare, there would be something yummy waiting for us. Biscuits and scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese. French toast covered with powdered sugar and maple syrup warmed at the stove by our mother. Bacon. Sausage. Pancakes. Ahhh, pancakes. There was nothing better than sitting at the kitchen table, watching Daddy pour the batter into the skillet, knowing that in less than 5 minutes pancakes were going to be on my plate. He used an electric skillet and could cook 5 pancakes at a time. Daddy would continue cooking until either the batter ran out, or we gave up, but as a kid I could eat about 5, so usually the batter ran out. Daddy’s pancakes weren’t light airy things, rather they were substantial enough to soak up syrup without turning to mush. This was because he added wheat germ to his batter, which in addition imparted an almost nutty flavor to the pancakes. Sometimes he wouldn’t stir the batter as thoroughly as he should and we would have to pick out the balls of dry flour from the cakes. Mom would say, “Earl you’ve got to make sure you stir it enough”. He’d reply with a grunt and an exasperated, “Well, I don’t want to over stir it either, do I?” Emily and I would compare our flour balls, looking for the biggest.

I discovered, when I left my parents house for college, that my idea of pancakes differs greatly from others’ ideas of pancakes. I could never find any that made me happy. Sometimes they’d be too puffy and taste like baking powder, almost metallic-y. Other times they’d be too thin and tough, with the only flavor coming from maple colored corn syrup. They were always too pale as if cooked on too low a heat.

Even now, I never order pancakes for breakfast (or for that matter French toast), because I know they will never stand up to the pancakes of my youth. In my small Brooklyn apartment, I usually have granola and yogurt, or raisin bread with peanut butter and honey. I eat by myself, because my husband and I have been unable to work out a feasible breakfast schedule. Sometimes, however, I’ll get the urge to make pancakes, usually on a Saturday. I always use my father’s recipe. We clear the kitchen table of all its papers, books, gum wrappers, and bags. After heating the syrup in the microwave, the two of us sit and eat a rare breakfast together. Sometimes we’ll have mimosas, a drink never seen in my parents’ house. These breakfasts are a treat, and the pancakes are good, yet …they fail to satisfy this certain craving in the corner of my heart. Because what I really want are the pancakes of my youth.

I want to be back in my parent’s kitchen where, in the quiet of a new day, I would sit in my nightgown watching my father pour batter into a smoking skillet. Where the four of us would gather, drinking orange juice, listening to weekend edition, and mom would start making a list of objectives for the day. Where the cat would jump into my lap and pretend to be interested in my empty plate, and as Car Talk came on, Emily and I would prepare for the next bellowed word, “Chores!”.


Daddy's Pancakes

1 egg
1 1/3 Cup milk
1/4 Cup melted butter
1 1/4 Cup flour
1/3 Cup wheat germ
1 Tbls sugar
2 tsp baking powder
dash of salt

Whisk all the liquids in a bowl. In a larger bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring until all ingredients are incorporated, and only small lumps remain. Place a lightly oiled skillet over medium heat. Using a 1/3 cup measure, pour batter, in batches, into skillet. Once the batter has formed bubbles, flip the pancakes. Remove when both sides are browned.


rowjimmy said...

As a pancake chef in my own right, I know a good pancake recipe when I see one. This is a good looking recipe.

I will be trying it out this weekend!

sean said...

Your father's pancakes are hearty, nutty, and a force to be reckoned with, just like him. All the rubbery pancake eaters of the world need to face down one of his stacks, at least once. But for the sake of your family honor, I hope that a future blog entry will highlight the transformation that has occurred in that kitchen, from stained and peeling to stylish and expansive.