By: Rachel Knox
“I don’t have to tell you I love you. I fed you pancakes.” – Kathleen Flinn
“Do you know what a hoecake is?” my grandpa asked me. We were watching a movie together in the doublewide trailer he and my grandma owned. She was in the garden popping the heads off of the grasshoppers who ate her roses. The movie was an old western—I want to say it was the original 3:10 To Yuma—and the cowboys were huddled around a campfire, where a skillet was nestled in the coals.
“It’s like a pancake, right?” I said.
He shifted in his La-Z-Boy. “No. Somethin’ else.”
His voice always sounded like someone had their hands around his windpipe, all smoke and strain. He grew up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and had breathing problems his whole life. He didn’t often talk directly to me—mostly we just watched his favorite westerns on TCM—so I was on pins and needles. He cleared his throat and started to tell me how cornmeal is used, not flour. You boiled the water and added it to the already hot meal. You’d put some grease on whatever you had, your shovel or your hoe or, less often, a skillet. Held over a fire, the batter would sizzle and crisp up at the edges. The other field hands might pour sorghum or cane syrup over them, if any of it was around, but the hoecakes weren’t sweet, and they weren’t breakfast. It might be the only subsistence the migrant workers would have all day, surrounded by acres of food they were picking and packing to ship off to the more fortunate.
My grandpa, my mother’s father, was a short, slight man. Years of malnourishment and stints with the Air Force in Vietnam and Korea left him hard-nosed and scrawny, edging on mean. He always looked like he had gotten into his clothes and then shrunk. My mom mentioned to me once that his family of migrant farmworkers had very little money. The kids left school and worked as soon as they were able-bodied, and he often brought a potato for lunch—the only thing he would eat all day.
When my grandpa finished talking, he spat his dip into a red Solo cup and turned back to the movie.
I’d never heard him talk so much, and never about food. My mom is, likewise, quiet about her childhood, telling me only that when she was my age, her main goal was to be as far away from her house as possible. She was one of five, like me, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine my aunt and uncles and her sharing laughs like ours at the dinner table. She decided, when starting her own family, that we would eat together every night, that there would be no fighting at the table, that we said grace and cleaned up after ourselves. We worked as a unit. She was intentional about teaching tenderness, fiercely affectionate, the opposite of my grandfather. Whatever held her first family together came from my grandma, and it was spread as thin as the lard the cowboys on the TV set used to fry their hoecakes. I watched the rest of the movie with my grandpa without really seeing it, thinking about the sepia-toned pictures hanging in the hallway of my mom as a teenager, scrawny and scowling. I imagined what kind of girl I’d be if I too had been raised on cheap starch and barren earth. Would I still love to read? Would I have learned how or even had time to? I might have been like my grandfather, scowling at the smudgy horizon the rest of my life, praying for rain.
Instead, I spent my summer afternoons snapping peas on the porch at my grandma’s feet or reading books from the Air Force base library in the sunshine. When it was time to make dinner, I watched my grandma intently. She kept a small step stool in the kitchen so my sister and I could reach the counter and help with little tasks, like mixing corn muffin batter or tearing leaves of lettuce from her garden.
My grandmother was an amazing cook. She would heap the table in their trailer’s kitchen with pots of hamhock-studded greens, skillets of cornbread, and plate after plate of cookies for her grandkids to feast on. But my grandpa’s relationship to food was skittish for the rest of his life. As an adult, despite being far away from the dusty Okie fields, he mostly drank coffee and ate a cold biscuit or two for breakfast. I barely recall him sitting with us for full meals. Really, the only nice memory I have of my grandfather and food is of the time we went fishing off a crumbling dock. His weathered face showed a rare mirth when we caught a catfish, a tiny thing, hardly bigger than bait. “That’s good eatin,” he said. After decades of going to school with an empty lunchbox, I wonder what he must have thought about my childhood in Florida, pulling food straight out of the backyard.
In lush contrast to the no-frills sustenance of the hoecake is the modern pancake. I picture big, fluffy stacks of golden pancakes and fat knobs of butter drenched in syrup. There is coffee. There might be a few wobbly eggs on melamine plates. Maybe there is bacon, lacquered in its own fat, the smell clinging wetly to the air of the kitchen or fluorescent-lit diner or church fellowship hall. Pancakes have roots across cultures, from crepes to dosa to injera. But the buttermilk pancake is something distinctly American: celebratory and excessive. They cost almost nothing to produce and as soon as one is devoured, another one appears beneath it. Every time I eat pancakes I feel like they grow back after each bite, Hydra-like, when I am distracted by my dining companion or licking maple syrup off of my fingers.
IHOP serves all manner of unholy abominations of the pancake: Tres Leches, cheesecake-stuffed, turned into sliders with bacon and eggs and American cheese. At trendy New York brunch spots, layered with homemade Nutella or miso butter or rainbow sprinkles, they sell for upwards of $15 a plate, what my dad would call “highway robbery.”
I won’t deny that good buttermilk, good butter, and the right technique make a genuinely superior product. Martha Stewart uses fine-milled buckwheat for nutrition and a nutty, roasty flavor. But that’s not why I eat pancakes.
I eat pancakes because it’s Christmas morning. Because it’s 4:00 a.m., and I’m drunk and swaying like a palm tree, or falling in love at a sticky patent leather booth table. Pancakes reward us for sitting still through the endless tedium of church and not pinching our siblings. We make pancakes for people who are still sleeping, or people we have just slept with, or people who cannot sleep.
In fact, I’d argue that it doesn’t matter what pancakes taste like. Hoecakes, either; you may eat them for survival or you may eat them for celebration, but the truth is that they are mostly empty calories. They can be fluff or filler, rendering you decadent or wholly dependent. A taste for sorghum might make the thought of whipped cream turn your stomach. Context is everything.
For camping trips when I was a kid, my mom would buy a half-dozen yellow plastic jugs of pancake mix and a case of Zephyrhills. I slept terribly in tents. I’d step over my sister and unzip myself out into the muggy morning. My mom was always awake first, and I’d help her make breakfast, pouring the bottled water into the handled jug, screwing on the lid, and using my whole body to jump up and down, shaking the mix so hard my arms would hurt. We’d work in silence while she drank coffee and flipped the pancakes I poured onto the electric griddle sprayed with PAM. Before my dad and my sister and brothers emerged from their tents, yawning and bleary-eyed, my mom and I already shared a few of the pancakes. “Quality assurance,” she’d say with a smile. We would all sit at the campsite’s picnic table and eat from paper plates, passing butter and syrup back and forth until the stacks of pancakes disappeared. As everybody slowly woke up, the chatter got louder and louder until it was a cacophony, with talk of canoes and bike tires and the day’s plans. Arguments over who had the bug spray last would ensue.
“Did everyone get enough pancakes?” my mom would holler over the noise. “We’re gonna be on the river all day so you won’t eat again until dinner. I don’t wanna hear any whining.”
My youngest brother, Jack, bounced in his booster seat, giggling. My dad was making faces at him across the table, using a silver-dollar pancake like an eyepatch. I thought about those skinny cowboys frowning around the campfire, my grandpa and his dusty lunchbox. I looked down at the paper plate balanced on my belly, syrup threatening to spill over the sides and onto my bathing suit. How different my life could have been. We were still poor, but the air was warm and sticky and I was full.
Rachel Knox is a writer and student at The New School in New York City. She hails from St. Petersburg, Florida and writes both fiction and nonfiction. Rachel lives and works in Brooklyn.