Pancake Dreams, Childhood Memories

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There were two things I never experienced knowingly until I went to college: fake butter, and fake maple syrup. Furthermore, whether you call them pancakes, griddle cakes, flapjacks, or hot cakes, most of us share the same image of this popular American breakfast dish. This was not the case for me.

We called them pancakes. We ate them for breakfast. But in fact, I grew up eating crepes. My grandmother learned to make them for my French grandfather; my father took over the tradition, and today for the first time in quite a while, I am returning to it. I haven’t made crepes in ages, but yesterday the craving took me over, and I realized that the “pancakes” that were commonplace in my household were foreign to my children.

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stack of homemade cornmeal pancakes, my son’s favorites.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good American pancake! We make them all the time with variation: whole wheat, buttermilk, cornmeal, white light & fluffy, and so on and so forth. Growing up, eating thick pancakes was a novelty, in which we would daringly engage at a diner (almost always disappointing), or at a friend’s house where the concept of chocolate chip pancakes or pancakes from a box was an uncontemplatable yet delicious sin. But back to the real story…

There was never a recipe. We learned by watching the various ingredients go into the blender, and we appreciated the results with the first bite from that thin little pancake with the perfect balance of creamy tenderness and golden crispiness. My grandmother wielded two small non-stick skillets in her house and she would make crepes in tandem. My father’s pan of choice, and mine as well, is a low-lipped cast iron frying pan, perfectly seasoned, never washed, and used exclusively for crepes.

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My cast iron crepe pan

The tradition, however, was the same in both households. Crepes in my family are served fresh and hot, and eaten right away while they are still at their most delicious. Whether we were offered “pancakes” for breakfast or we requested them, the system worked as follows: The quickest child would claim the first pancake, even with the knowledge that sometimes the first one would not be sheer perfection while the pan temperature was adjusted and the cast iron fine tuned its seasoning with the current flame. The claim was staked by simply shouting “I get first!” In turn, someone would call second, and the last child (there were three of us), would obviously be third. At my grandmother’s, she would make crepes just for us, perhaps eating one for herself at the end. When my dad made crepes, he worked furiously providing crepe after crepe, with my mom in fourth place, and my dad eating his fill only if there was a lull in the lineup or if we had all eaten our fill.

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The lineup of plates in the crepe serving frenzy

It wasn’t that we each ate in isolation. The flurry of activity in the kitchen meant that we essentially ate together, moving from table to the serving lineup and back again, keeping our place and the system running smoothly, with only occasional arguments about who was next.

Looking at recipes and uses for traditional French crepes, there is no doubt that our crepes and how we eat them have been hybridized. I am not afraid to add a hint of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt to my recipe. We enjoy them ladled with melted butter and authentic maple syrup. Bon appetit!

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