Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Size of Pancakes

As David and I shared our breakfast of pancakes and bacon the other morning, I had a flash memory of my childhood breakfasts. I asked David, “what size were your mother‘s pancakes?”

Used to my randomness and unusual questions, he said, “she made ‘em about that size,” and he pointed to the quart jar lid sized ones that were currently on the griddle and our plates.

I said, “My daddy used to make gigantic ones, bigger than I-Hop -- the biggest I have ever seen.”

David, with his mouth full, just nodded.

Because my mother worked, my daddy stepped in to help with the cooking, and the meal he prepared most  was breakfast and Sunday lunch. Even though my dad loved food, he was not a good cook, and my mother blamed it on his “being waited on as child” by a doting aunt who came to live with them and help when daddy’s mother became an invalid. His mother would die when Daddy was fourteen.

Daddy cooked because he needed to help out, and as he prepared breakfast, he just wanted to get it done, get us on our way, so that he too could get off to his own job.  It was a means to an end.

Over the years as Daddy continued to cook even though we came of an age where we could make our own breakfast, he never really improved as a cook -- he had some memorable, signature dishes that we still crave -- his Sunday roast with potatoes and vegetables, his Thanksgiving bread stuffing, and his mayonnaise biscuits, but for breakfast, he was pretty uninspired.

He was the morning parent, the one who woke us from our beds before daylight [by flipping on the overhead light -- there is a story in that itself -- traumatizing to be awaken that way -- like the paparazzi just barreled into my bedroom with a camera], hurried us through our dressing and use of the bathroom, ushered us into the kitchen, fed us, and then pushed us out the door to school.

We were a hot breakfast family: fried eggs, oatmeal, toast, and pancakes. My mother's famous and  wonderful egg concoction, that we called “toast eggs" and involved a soft boiled egg, is still a fond memory with my siblings, but she only fixed that for us on special occasions.

Since Daddy, as maker of breakfast, cared little for quality control, he could gum up some bad oatmeal. Made the old-fashioned way in a aluminum sauce pan on the stove, he ultimately either mis-measured the oats or water or salt, turned up the gas too high, got distracted by the news on WSB, the radio station that he listened to every morning, or just didn’t stir it enough, and ultimately the porridge stuck to the pan like glue {hated washing that pan -- hated looking at it too --  as many an afternoon it would be still soaking in the sink -- the oatmeal grossly adhered to the sides of the pan}.

The saving grace for the oatmeal was that he didn’t care how much butter or sugar we put on it to make it edible.  I think the word for what we added would be heaping. Heaping teaspoons of sugar. I still don’t eat oatmeal without sugar.

Our dog Susie ate a lot of oatmeal as we scraped the thick gunk that we found "ugh" into her bowl from ours. Our dogs always ate our leftovers; I don't remember us ever buying dog food.

If breakfast was toast, Daddy prepared it using the oven’s broiler. With four children, this expedient way allowed him to butter eight pieces of bread, place it under the broiler, toast it, and then we all could be fed at once  --- this eliminated fighting for a place in line at the toaster.  Actually, for all I know, we might not have had a toaster. We were kind of poor in that frugal way  -- as in -- our parents really remembered The Great Depression. Note the capitalization -- I learned that when I was two.

Daddy sometimes in his haste or his distraction by the news that spewed from the small radio above the refrigerator burned the toast. Because we didn’t throw food away [unless it was spoiled], he scraped the black cinders of the burned top of the bread off with a knife, and then handed the toast to us like it was awesome. Even with his scraping, the toast still tasted burned.  I still can hear that scraping noise the knife made against that burned toast; in fact, I think I can still taste that burnt bread. 

My favorite toast was cinnamon. Made with white bread and only toasted on one side, my daddy put cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl, stirred it together, and then with one dollop of butter in the center of the bread, he sprinkled the mixture all over the top and toasted it under the broiler to a high brown.  As the heat hit the cinnamon toast, the butter melted and spread across the bread mixing with the cinnamon mixture and making the middle this yummy, gummy, butter laden bite of heaven. I could easily down four slices.

If he toasted it just right, which meant that Daddy had to bend low to the floor to flip down the broiler door and check it several times [the oven was temperamental], this delightful breakfast, the smell wafting through the house, brought even the sleepiest child to the table.  When I smell cinnamon now, that memory of that hot toast in our warm childhood kitchen on winter days makes me nostalgic to capture the security and love of those moments of eating breakfast with my siblings and dad.

Another toast that we had of our own variety was French toast. Made with white bread as well, Daddy sopped the bread in an egg mixture with milk, which was never measured or done the same way twice, and cooked these on both sides in frying pan.  Sometimes, the egg mixture adhered to the bread in a weird way, and other times, the bread had hardly any egg mixture at all.  His French toast never seemed to come out the same way. Ever. The pan held about four pieces of bread at a time, so we each got a single piece. As he prepared the next round, we spread our single piece of  French toast with grape jelly or piled it high with teaspoons of confectioners or refined sugar. Sugar. It masked even the worst of Daddy's missteps in the kitchen. With all that sugar, it’s a wonder we didn't have the attention spans of fleas.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that some people, not just the Yankees, put maple syrup on French toast.

On Saturday mornings when Daddy had  a little more time and was enticing us to get out of bed and get started on our Saturday chores, he prepared pancakes. Using the electric frying pan, he would mix up the batter in a huge bowl and fry up these gargantuan pancakes. Usually the size of dinner plates, these pancakes could vary in done-ness. If he paid close attention to his fry duties, daddy’s pancakes came out the color of honey; if he lost his focus, then they could be either light brown, with an undone middle, or dark brown with a crispy exterior.  Regardless, we ate them.

What cracks me up, in retrospect, is how ridiculously huge these pancakes were. Daddy would fill the bottom of that fry pan with batter, sometimes the batter thick, sometimes thin, let the cake cook on one side [he determined when to flip it by the number of bubbles in the middle of the cake as it cooked], and then turn  it once, the cake so big that it hung off all sides of the spatula like some kind of other worldly thing.

I don’t know how he flipped those guys so easily.

Sitting at the table, our forks in the air in anticipation, these pancakes were a kid filler. We had to wait patiently for them as he could only cook them one at a time. After daddy placed this humongous hot cake on our plates, we slathered them in butter and then covered them with home made syrup, a mix that my mother heated up on the stove in a saucepan. Made from sugar, water, and maple flavoring, that hot syrup just made those pancakes, regardless of color, perfect.

I  loved those giant pancakes. I loved my daddy's pancakes -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. *sigh*
When we went to Lynchburg for an extended stay, the aunts also made us pancakes. The difference was that their pancakes were the size of silver dollars, and one of them, usually Aunt Ava or Eleanor, would stand patiently at their griddle, pouring the batter into the pan in small quantities, and then flipping the pancakes until they were perfectly done.  Each of us could eat ten or twelve of them to our aunt's surprise: after all, we had been trained by the best.

BTW: The aunts had this cool syrup dispenser too -- by sliding back this little lever on top, it would pour out the syrup in a smooth stream.  We used to fight over that thing. Their pancakes always came out the same while Daddy’s pancakes -- well, we never knew anything for sure about them except that they would be big.

Very big.


  1. From Gary who can't comment. *stomps feet in anger at Blogspot*

    Wonderful story! I have similar memories. Mom started working again after I was old enough to go to school. Hot breakfast usually meant scrambled eggs and sausage or bacon with toast, left on a plate in the oven to stay warm. My oldest sister was in charge of making sure I was up. We only had hot breakfast one or two days a week. Otherwise we had cereal. When my father ate cereal with us, he always had cornflakes; plain, without even sugar.
    I loved pancakes! Sometimes the boys down the street that I "hung out" with, would get on the bus talking about their pancake breakfast. I nagged and commented so much, their mother (like my second mother as a child), started inviting me over for breakfast whenever she cooked them! BTW-they were a little larger than a mason fruit jar lid. And as a Southerner I have to admit I ate syrup on French Toast also.

  2. Oh, what wonderful memories....I can just see that "spackle" oatmeal in the pan! I myself have been distracted by many things...usually making paste out of cream of wheat! Your Mom and Dad sound wonderful! Lori

  3. Harriett, Luke LOVED cinnamon toast. He would use the toaster. Toast the bread, then spread on alot of butter, then the cinnamon/sugar mixture. He would put so much cinnamon/sugar on there, that I would say you could hear the "grit" when he chewed.

    And to Gary...who puts sugar on corn flakes? It just sinks to the bottom of the bowl. Go for Frosted Flakes!

  4. I love this! My dad made "pink eggs" because he couldn't hold back on the tomatoes.

  5. From NSB:

    Nice blog. WSB = Welcome South Brother and we always ate maple syrup on our french toast, aint nothing yankee about us!

  6. oh this reminds me of my daddy. he also made big pancakes :) such solid writing here, and i loved the photos. bless you friend.

  7. My favorite portion is this: "... the cake so big that it hung off all sides of the spatula like some kind of other worldly thing." I was raised without a dad so this story intrigues me in more ways than one.

    Thanks for sharing your memories.


  8. My friend, what great memories you have. Your post about your dad and breakfast make me think of my own sweet papa. My daddy loved breakfast. To him, it was the most important meal of the day before that saying became popular. Mom would usually fix breakfast during the week, but Daddy would take over on Saturday mornings. Portion control was my daddy's shortfall when it came to any food preparation. He would cook enough for a small army even after all the other kids had left the nest, and I was the only one still living at home. Grits and eggs were always on the menu, but he would vary the bread and meat portions of the meal.... Biscuits and country ham... waffles and bacon... pancakes and sausage. When it came to pancakes, he would experiment with different recipes but nothing beat his regular buttermilk pancakes. I miss my daddy's breakfasts.

    And for all of you truly Southern people out there, the absolute best topping for pancakes, French toast, biscuits, or waffles is a mixture of butter and sorghum syrup melting and oozing over the top. mmmm good.

  9. From brother Ken -- who can't comment but sent me this email:


    I have memories of making the syrup while someone else did the pancakes.

    I never had good oven toast until I got married and tasted my mother-in-law's
    oven toast. toasted on both sides and not burned

    Texas oven toast(Served at Rock Eagle,location of 1 youth church retreat and over 20 umm
    retreats was always cooked on both sides and never burned: always hard , the joke was it was toast from last year

    or left over "bricks" used to build the buildings)

    As far as using jelly or sugar on french toast and finding out when went to college that most people
    used syrup

    I have this story:

    I asked mother about this and she said she tried to get us to use syrup but we wanted to use jelly or sugar

    Since I do not remember mother asking us if we wanted syrup, I blame Margaret or Hunter for warping us this way.

    AT our house,the last pancake was always the Big kahuna...


  10. Michael and I found one of those Pyrex syrup dispensers at the NC State flea market two years ago and bought it! LOL We love that thing.

    I don't remember Dad cooking anything when we were children, LOL. He always helped serve and dish things out but it was always Mom who cooked. A few years ago, he got into this quesadilla making frenzy though. Every time I'd take the kids over there to visit (which was probably at least twice or three times a week), he'd go beserk making quesadillas. He started with just cheddar and then it grew into him using every kind of cheese he could find at the market, LOL. Luckily, the kids like them so they always ate them. I'm not that big of a quesadilla fan, though I've never had the heart to tell him so, wouldn't want to kill his joy at finally making us kids something in the kitchen, LOL.

    Michael loves to cook and is pretty good at it (when he refrains from adding oregano to every thing he creates). His breakfast dishes are the best, much better than mine. His pancakes are ginormous, which, of course, the kids love. They don't even bother with syrup. He flips them, lays them on the plate, one of the kids will walk by and next thing you know, the plate is empty. He also loves making crepes. And soft boiled eggs (for me). And juevos rancheros.

    The kitchen is our center. We cook in it, talk in it, make life changing decisions in it, LOL. It's definitely the busiest room in the house, especially with three energetic and rapidly growing children eating us out of house and home...

  11. My grandfather made what he called "the smallest pancakes in the world." They were just spatters on the griddle...but my sister and I didn't know any better. We were enchanted.