The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve enjoyed cooking. I’ve always been a pretty good cook, but I haven’t always enjoyed it. There’s a ceremony, a ritual to it I embrace now. Besides that, preparing meals appeals to the design and style parts of me. Though I often do it alone, I like to make things look as impeccably as possible, like someone is watching. And unlike with other things, my pursuit of perfection isn’t an unhealthy obsession and constraining. It’s a mostly delightful expedition. I can’t make pancakes, though, and it’s befuddling.
I never really could.
For years I cooked out of necessity. You don’t have an expanse of body as I do without knowing how to make a meal or two. You don’t make it through college when eating out gets expensive, cafeteria fare gets old, and Ramen noodles and meat in cans aren’t your jam without mastering some savory dishes. But whenever my roommate and I ate pancakes (waffles, as it were, since Waffle House was closer than IHOP) in the dorm or our apartment after graduating, she cooked them. And at home, it was my mom who flipped the flapjacks.
One morning at my mom’s house during a holiday break, while my mom was out, I decided I’d make pancakes. I used the pancake mix from the cabinet she always used and followed the instructions spelled out on the box. When I was done and had put them on the plate, slathered butter on top and between them saturated the round, starchy flat cakes with syrup, I was ready to eat. But they were weird. The pancakes were weird. They didn’t taste funny, but the consistency was … weird. I finished them but, dude, they were nothing like my mom’s.
I figured it was the pancake mix. I bought my own when I got back to my place some weeks later and tried again. Nope.
Years later, a guy I had a situationship with was visiting. He was a good cook so I rarely cooked when he visited, unless he asked me to. I’d decided I was going to do something special and surprise him. I’d cook breakfast.
Things are better from scratch, I reasoned. I read recipe after recipe online and found one that looked promising from Alton Brown. Pancakes, eggs and turkey bacon. The menu was set.
Flour. Sugar. Vanilla. Blah, blah, blah. I set all the ingredients out on the counter of my too-small kitchen while he slept in the other room, stretched out on the sofa. I had lived in three other spaces by this point and alone for nearly 10 years. I was nervous but excited because this time would be different.
By the time I plated the breakfast, it was beautiful. I’m a master at plating a meal. He took the first bite of cakes and started to chew. And he chewed. And chewed. And chewed some more.
“OK!” he said, unsure what else to say, I started to piece together.
“I was trying to surprise you but suck at making pancakes,” I offered as a semi-apology to give him time to access his vocabulary. He was a writer, after all. He had words.
“Well, that was sweet,” he said, smiled and chuckled that deep chuckle of his.
I took the fork from his calloused hands and cut a bite of pancake for myself. Just like times before, they tasted fine but I, too, chewed … and chewed … and chewed. The bite had the consistency of a wet sponge. (No, I’m not confessing that I’ve also eaten wet sponges; this is what I imagine their consistency to be.)
He ate a bite of eggs, a break from chewing the pancakes, and immediately grabbed at the glass of orange juice. In my nervousness about the pancakes, I was distracted and had apparently salted the eggs once or thrice.
He took another bite of pancake, and I tried to stifle my laugh.
“Can we go out to eat breakfast?” he asked.
“Yes!” I went to grab my purse.
After complaining so long about flat discs of sweetened dough browned in a skillet getting the best of me, my mother decided she’d watch me step-by-step in my process. I just had to be missing something, we concurred.
Like a shadow connected to its subject, momma watched every. single. thing. I did. It was our agreement.
I put as much water and pancake mix as the box instructed and combined them.
“Put just a little more water,” she said.
I whisked. Though she uses a fork, I decided I’d use a whisk because I’d seen cooks on television do that.
“Mmph. A little more pancake mix.”
More wrist action.
I held the whisk up and let batter drip from it into the bowl so she could see.
“Yep, I think that’s it,” momma said, taking the whisk from me to feel the texture of the batter herself. “We’re ready.
In the meantime, the skillet had been heating, and I poured oil in in.
“That’s enough!” she said urgently.
I certainly knew how to pour oil in a skillet, but it was a tutorial for pancakes, so I took everything seriously. I acquiesced earnestly.
The pancake batter was next. Pooour. One down. Pooour. Now two.
“That’s enough, huh?” I asked. “Give them room to breathe?”
My mom nodded.
Bubbles formed in the brown eggshell-colored batter that laid there, helpless to the high heat and spatula that slid beneath the crisping edges for a quick flip to the other side of the imperfect circle for another browning. It was just shy of flawless.
“They’re pretty!” my mom said.
“Yep.” Ordinarily, I’d be jazzed, but I’d seen this before. My hopes were high the consistency would be right this time.
The first two were ready, and I put them on a plate.
“Taste them,” I instructed, after I’d dressed them.
“Hmph!” she chirped. My mother “hmphs” a lot, but the inflections tell the inveterate what she’s thinking.
Her “hmph” confused me because—DOGGONEIT! —she was still chewing.
“This is strange. They’re kind of— “
“Like a sponge?”
“Yeah. It’s strange.”
“I told you! It’s me!”
Come visit me, and I’ll make a production of at least one of our meals together. The table is always set—dinner plate, salad plate, soup bowl, coffee mug and saucer, red and white wine glasses, cloth napkins with napkin rings. Would you rather sit on the sofa to eat? I’ll likely serve you on a wooden serving tray. But if you love me, pretend to or think you may need me to do a favor for you one day, don’t expect me to make you pancakes. There’s no point in the beauty of ceremony, when I can just put a sponge on a really nice plate for you.
Want a glass of orange juice or coffee with that?
…maybe I should try making waffles.