‘A Skeptic Tries’ is a series examining our food resistances and what happens when we try them anyway. Next up, writer Maggie Lange tries to love pancakes in the name of, well, love.
Dating someone with a precise palate often means hearing utterly surreal reports about flavor: There’s rotten blueberry in this espresso. Is that eau de tree bark in the beets? It’s one of the qualities I love most about them. I ask Megan about an oyster, and they give me the word grass or honeysuckle. But no one is purely fascinating. We all have our contradictions, and the glitch in Megan’s heightened sense of taste is their affection for soft, boring foods: mashed potatoes, plain pasta from a box with truly nothing on it, and, most upsettingly, pancakes.
On the mornings when they are vulnerable (hungover), I hear them whisper, softly into the distance, like an unanswered prayer: I wish we had pancakes. But to me, pancakes just seem like the first draft of a breakfast food. I don’t understand how they became a staple—and who they convinced to let them remain one! If something is bland its texture better be virtuosic. Waffles (crispy containing cakey) understand this. Toast (roasted brittle against springy carb) understands this. Crepes (pliant, firm) understand this. They are like pancakes, but crepes know to get out of the way for the stars of the show: the toppings (brie and ham, for me).
This brings us to pancakes’ gravest fault. For such bland little things, you’d think they would try harder to make friends. But, in my experience, pancakes are companionable with two flavor combinations: butter and maple syrup, and [insert fruit of choice] and whipped cream. Where is the pecorino and shaved fennel topping? Where’s the prosciutto or smoked salmon or spicy-herby slather? The fried chicken and pickles? These are all combos that crepes, toast, and waffles have no problems hanging out with. Pancakes are the Charlottes of the breakfast menu: boring and fussy.
This does make them an easy target. In the first season of Succession, one of the most devastating insults cast was that Connor, the floppy dud eldest brother, was “the first pancake,” named for the phenomenon whereby the initial pancake is always the lousiest one of the batch. In a recent episode of Big Mouth, two characters have sex for the second time and are trying to lovingly describe how it was just fine: “Like pancakes without syrup: Kinda okay!” A rough first try and a faltering second attempt are inevitable parts of the human experience, but can we not ask for more from our food? When it comes to breakfast, pancakes are the first pancake.
Megan has tried countless unbeloved foods (mushrooms, Bloody Marys, tuna salad sandwiches) for me, and what have I done for them? Nothing, is what. So it’s Megan’s impending happiness alone that finally coaxes me to try them one morning in mid-January. Even though they’re the one with a fuzzy-Saturday-morning brain and I’m hangover-free, Megan is going to make us the first pancakes I’ve had in years.
Even I must admit, the way pancakes exit the frying pan—one by one like they’re in a beauty pageant or a parade—is iconic!
On first glance, fresh-off-the-griddle pancakes are prettier than I remembered, with some lacy-swirly Robert Smithson aesthetic going on. But we encounter another hiccup in the experiment: I don’t like maple syrup anymore than I like the dough under it. So I shuffle to the table with thick pads of butter and dollops of cream on my stack. The first bite is eggier than I expected—in a nice way—and the texture is a little more buoyant than I thought it would be. The morsels covered with whipped cream (January berries looked absolutely too deflated to purchase at the co-op) are almost lively. But nothing thrills me about the experience