Why Pancakes Matter

Cornmeal Griddle Cakes with Wild Blueberry Sauce

Blueberry Pancakes
My journals are all filled with intelligible-to-only-me scribbles; I need new ones. All I have left are a couple of pocket-size notebooks with kitschy donuts on the front because who doesn’t need pocket-size notebooks with kitschy donuts on the front? The headspace between lines is cramped. The notebooks are good depositories for tested then retested then axed then recovered recipes, but they lack the wide open spaces needed for my overworked mind and my overactive pen. I’ve delayed buying new ones. I haven’t written. I haven’t written when I might need to write most. It’s okay; I’m not a writer. I make a living bitching about other folks’ writing. Writing and editing use two different sides of the brain, I think. My craft won’t suffer. Why should I write when I have a to-do list that never ends? Why write when I can read and temporarily obscure my story by burrowing myself in the stories of others.

This morning—just like the last, and the one before that, and almost every morning for the past 5 weeks—I awoke to bright artificial light shining from behind swollen eyelids. The lids don’t lift; the heat of that light glues them shut and I have to make my brain move my forehead to force them open. My thick-framed glasses, folded fortunately, are wedged between the mattress and the small of my back. My comforter is on the ground, my bottle of prescription eye drops on my belly, held in place by a heavy, lifeless hand. In fact, neither of my hands, or arms or legs, can move for a good minute. My brain sends the signal; I concentrate hard, imagining the creaky bending of a robot’s joints. But the arms can’t keep up with these mental efforts. My cell phone is my sorry bedmate, sharing the pillow with me and threatening to die. “Low battery. 10% of battery remaining,” it passive-aggressively announces. The alarms on it are not set. I’m lucky I wake up without its buzzer.

Cast-Iron Skillet
I’ve been collapsing every evening as soon as my head hits the pillow. Or perhaps sooner because one day I awoke on my knees, with my butt in the air and my head ramming downward into the pillow. Not hot. Another night I simply sat on my bed at 9pm to open a book. At 4am I found myself in a bright room again, with the book on the floor, my body flat on my back, and my legs dangling off the bed. Add this to the list of strange phenomena that make me me. But this one, though probably the most benign on that list of oddities, is troubling in a creepy way as opposed to in a painful or sick way. It’s an artificial brush with death, but it happens almost every damn night. The collapse, the bright light, the dead weight, the exasperation. Either the end is near or I’m infallible. But now, almost every morning, I need to see myself in a way that makes me very uncomfortable: helpless. I’m a heap of flawed bones and tissues, detached from an anxious brain. I’m not strong enough to pull the heap closer to the brain, and I live briefly in this empty middle ground.

blueberry sauce
I guess that’s why I need the pen more than ever right now. My fingers, inexplicably weak and arthritic-feeling need release. The pressure exerted when they hold and move the pen keeps the joints busy, steadies the fingers from their restlessness, and distracts the rest of the body from the panic du jour. We all suffer, every day, so perhaps we should all write. You don’t have to be a singer to benefit, if just briefly, from humming a tune. You don’t have to be a dancer to hop or head-bang around your bedroom. So you don’t have to be a writer to write.

But why here? There’s got to be a better reason than “I’m out of notebooks.” And it’s certainly not a cry for help or attention. Why is it appropriate for me to rant about my sleep troubles while I serve up a recipe for griddle cakes that I made simply because I thought they’d taste good? I find sleep stories fascinating. But it seems awfully personal and inappropriate, and do griddle cakes even matter at this point—now that I’ve quickly and furiously written all of that down? (Besides fixing typos, I’m not even editing the above, just like in a notebook.)

short stack
I want to say that the reason this is here is because food is as central to humanity as personal struggles are. I want to say that food does heal for me. I’m not much of an emotional eater, but I’m an emotional maker. I like to put my nervous energy into a project, and the math and science of developing a recipe that someone might enjoy is a worthy project for me. But I’d hate to say that because I’ll admit I got a good chuckle from the New Yorker piece pretty much mocking everything I just did. No matter how holier than thou and snarky the culture writers are, I still read them (unfortunately, I’m a pretty snarky human myself), and while I think there’s a much more obnoxious brand of food blogger (the word “blogger” makes me cringe) out there, I’m pretty obnoxious too. So in addition to corncakes, I’ve served you up a pile of hot shit today. I hope you enjoy. But I certainly feel better now.

duck confit
Now, the griddle cakes, an enjoyable topic: They’re not necessarily griddle cakes in the traditional sense (they’re richer, less gritty), but they’re inspired by Southern-style cornbread, my preferred type. They’re savory (I don’t like sweet breakfasts), flourless, substantial, and very corn-y, like skillet cornbread. But with whipped egg whites and liberal leavener, they’re not as light as pancakes, but they lack some of the density of Southern cornbread, making them feel like more of a treat. Lucky to have come across wild blueberries, I made an easy sauce to contribute a bit of sweetness. It’s not blueberry syrup or one of those sticky, overly glossy toppings found at places like IHOP. It’s pure blueberry, enhanced with just a tablespoon of maple syrup and a little lemon juice. Its juices are thin enough that the pancakes readily soak them up. The pancake-sauce combination is rustic and comforting and complemented by big pats of butter. If you like, you can add dollops of the sauce to the pancakes while they’re cooking for a portable breakfast (see the last picture). Or, if you just happen to have some duck confit and duck fat on hand, you can fry the pancakes in fat, pile on duck confit and chopped pieces of crisped duck skin before pouring on a bit of sauce, enhanced with a splash of balsamic vinegar (second to last picture). Like you do. They’d also be good with pork or maybe with some chili, vinegary braised greens, or fried chicken on top.

Everyone has a silent struggle, many of us have more than one. We do what we can to sludge through each day. For now, all I have are the pen and the whisk. And I thank you for reading, through the morose and the whiny and the fluffy and the fun. This stuff matters.

cornmeal pancakes
Cornmeal Griddle Cakes with Wild Blueberry Sauce
Makes about twenty 4-inch pancakes and 1 cup of sauce

The sauce will work with regular-size blueberries but the timing will be different and the berries won’t hold their shape.. A cast-iron skillet created the crispest exteriors on these pancakes. The pancakes are are also good with honey butter, maple syrup, or in various savory applications.

8 ounces wild blueberries
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Pinch kosher salt

315 grams (2¼ cups) cornmeal
402 grams (1¾ cups) buttermilk
2 large eggs, separated
4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons sugar
1¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Vegetable oil

1. For the sauce: Gently stir all ingredients together in small saucepan. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until lots of juice is released, about 15 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring frequently over medium-high heat until sauce reaches your desired thickness.

2. For the Pancakes: Whisk cornmeal and buttermilk together in bowl; let soak for 30 minutes.

3. Whip egg whites to soft peaks. Whisk together egg yolks in small bowl. Whisk melted butter, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and egg yolks into cornmeal mixture until combined. Gently whisk in one-third of whipped whites to lighten. Fold remaining egg whites into batter in 2parts.

4. Gently reheat blueberry sauce, stirring occasionally. Heat 1 teaspoon vegetable oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Swirl pan to coat with oil. Using scant ¼ cup dry measure (about 3 tablespoons), scoop up batter and place in pan, 3 pancakes at a time. Using thin metal spatula, flip pancakes when bubbles on surface have popped and formed holes and edges are browned. Cook until second side is brown. Serve immediately with blueberry sauce or transfer to wire rack set in baking sheet in 200-degree oven to keep warm while repeating with remaining batter. Gently fold batter with whisk every few batches and replenish oil in pan as needed.

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