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I turned 20 in Boston. I dropped out of Hampshire College because I thought I was going crazy and I didn’t want to feel that anymore. I figured if I went to a city and got a job, things might get better. Pretty quickly, they did.

I got a job cooking at the Border Café, a Tex Mex place opening up in Cambridge. I wish I still had the employee manual, 30 pages of guidelines on how to work with others. The booklet urged us to do unto others as you’d have done unto you.

The managers preached this idea in training, but once we got working, the curtains of this pretense fell away. We had our tasks – I had the fry station by the bar – and we worked. Some of us worked slowly, some quickly. There was a lot of cilantro to be chopped.

I loved the routine and expectations. The prep and the cooking. Breaking down my area at the end of the night. I knew what to do. All of this was so much simpler than life at Hampshire, where classes and everything else were optional.

I thought its experimental nature would suit me. I didn’t realize that I needed structure, something to rebel against. If I didn’t have anything I had to do, I didn’t have to do anything. All that free time made me a devil.

Working helped wash the devil right out of me, just as my born again Christian employers intended. I got really happy really fast. I was so relieved to not be miserable, and to quit making other people around me miserable.

One thing that delighted me was pancakes.

As I wandered around Boston looking for a job, someone gave me a flyer for a 99-cent breakfast: pancakes, eggs, and some kind of meat. A bar/restaurant in Harvard Square was trying to build up its breakfast business. I was glad to help.

I skipped the eggs and the meat. The price made me happy, but so did the food. I ate alone, reading the newspaper, drifting away from my college-addled angst. All around me, people went to school and worked. Everything seemed less iffy and irritating. I relaxed.

The promo kept happening and I kept taking advantage of it. One day, a stranger stopped me en route.

“You look like a woman who knows where to find good pancakes,” she said.

Even though I had the answer, the question seemed kind of crazy. I wouldn’t be surprised now if someone asked me where to find good pancakes. My life revolves around the griddle. But did I have pancakes written all over my face back then?

Those pancakes were probably from a mix, and definitely from white flour. They helped get me back on track.

Pancakes still keep me on track, but I’m ultra fussy about ingredients. If I don’t have the right flour in the house I pout. When I run out of malt, everything in me stops, like a story I’ve been watching is stalled because of a broken television.

I know I’m a little ridiculous about my taste for pancakes, but awareness doesn’t shift my inclinations. However, a new job is helping me see the luxury of my obsession.

I started to cook lunch for a meal program at Unity House. Using a scramble of ingredients, I make food for up to 150 people. The people who come get one serving. If I burn the soup, they eat the soup.

I have the means to eat exactly what I want. If I wake up at 3 a.m., I make pancakes. I feel lucky.

I feel luckier still when I see people line up for lunch.





Field to Griddle

Field to Griddle

Published by Metroland, September 25, 2013

“A workshop on pancakes? Everyone knows how to make pancakes,” a woman said, shaking her head. “What’s there to learn?”

I was at the From Scratch Club booth at the Homegrown Skills Tent at Farm Aid Saturday, and the question was a little daunting because I had to defend my territory. I was already a little daunted. Twenty-nine thousand people were at SPAC to hear Willie Nelson and Neil Young. From Scratch Club, which I write and teach for, was selected to showcase the DIY way to be, and host two of six workshops—bacon and pancakes.

photo credit: Christina Davis, From Scratch Club

So I thought a moment, and told the woman: This is going to be more of a “because” workshop, rather than a “how-to.” Titled “Pancakes 101: Field to Griddle,” the class was taught by organic grain farmer Thor Oechsner, who would cover the field, and me, who would hover as usual at the griddle.

“If you could read my mind, you would see that all I think about is pancakes,” I said as I got used to the Madonna microphone a little while later. A lot of people were in front of me—60 or 75, sitting on hay bales and folding chairs. I’ve got a one-track mind, and my topic is pancakes. I think of them when I am riding my bike. I come up with new recipes when people are talking about entirely unrelated things, like carpool schedules. Once, I had to force myself to not get out of bed and e-mail a miller about a stunning tidbit I’d learned in a book about Aunt Jemima. The e-mail would wait until morning.

I’ve always liked pancakes, but the like has turned obsessive the last few years as I’ve learned about grain production and flour. Whole grain, freshly milled flour made from wheat grown outside of the dominant grain production areas has flavor to spare. My pancakes revel in those flavors and stand up tasty and proud at the griddle, announcing themselves as the perfect breakfast.

I’m too much of a knee-jerk proletariat to easily talk about the concept of terroir, but at Farm Aid, Oechsner talked about how grains, like any other food, taste like where they’re grown. Just as grapes can have a good year, seed varieties and seasons play out in wheat fields. Wheat types that have been bred for higher yields and large-scale production have lost qualities such as flavor and nutrition. One study of nutrition conducted in Washington state found that you’d have to eat 10 slices of bread made from a certain modern variety to get the nutrients found in a variety from the late 1800s

He also talked about figuring out how to handle grains in New York, where humid summers create a few challenges to harvest quality. He told the story of opening his mill, Farmer Ground Flour, and the bakery that began as a test kitchen for their flour, Wide Awake Bakery.

All the while, I made pancakes using malted barley from Valley Malt—the Hadley, Mass., micro-maltster whose products are found in Albany Distilling’s goods—and whole-wheat pastry flour milled on Aug. 13 at Farmer Ground. (The date was on the bag.)

When it was my turn to talk, I pushed whole-grain flours, stone-milled and unsifted. The flours contain all the sweetness of the germ, and the tastiness of the bran. White flour, I explained, has always been favored because Western culture loves whiteness. This love, plus advances in agricultural and food technology like roller milling, which can sift out all of the bran, landed us in a glut of flour in the 1880s, when Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was born.

Suddenly, there was a glut on the grain and flour market. Newspaperman Charles Rutt bought a defunct flour mill and decided to make a pancake mix to push flour. He and his business partner chose Aunt Jemima as a brand when they saw a minstrel show. Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour did not take off until a few years later, at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Former slave Nancy Green played Aunt Jemima, cooking pancakes and telling stories inside a flour-barrel-shaped booth. Her stories and food were so popular that the fair had to hire extra security for crowd control.

The gist of the myth she spread was that during the Civil War, Yankees came to her plantation, and she saved her colonel’s scalp with plates of fabulous pancakes. Her recipe was so revered that eventually the company was founded.

This was the first packaged mix. I love telling this story because it is a starting point for talking about how food production began to get out of our hands. The late 1800s were a heyday for breakfast cereals and other ready-made foods. Breakfast is where convenience foods began, and going back to the griddle is a great way to take charge of food again.

Pancakes are the original fast food. Ye Olde Griddle was probably a stone heated over a fire, where our ancestors cooked grain gruels into flatcakes. You can make savory cakes for dinner in less time than it takes to make pasta. There are nice pancake mixes on the market, but you have more control of the ingredients if you make it yourself.

I use the flours I love and Rumford baking powder for perfect loft. I never have to add any sugar because whole grains are sweet enough on their own. A pinch of baking soda helps the little bit of yogurt I add to make a tangy batter. Some people separate egg whites, which can lighten the cakes, but if you are devoted to cakes on a daily basis, you’ll be happy without the extra work.