Pancakes: an emblem of good ol’ “America”. An “america” that boasts wealth and success and erases histories of oppression and struggle. An America that is full of empty promises for many. In the conversations with many Malagasy I have heard over and over a projection of a shiny, sparkling, magical place– but that is for another post. However, this conception of America is full of conceptions of American Patriotisms that I haven’t really engaged in. Football, hamburgers, July 4th, and always our flag. I get asked to sing the national anthem, of which I don’t know all the words. However, I didn’t grow up within this American Patriotism. My parents had a distinct dislike for nationalistic tendencies that glossed over a problematic history.
More likely to serve rice, nato and miso in the morning, my mom’s cuisine is usually a reflection of her many years lived in Japan. I remember once my father put up an American flag on our front porch when I was little, probably around the time he got his citizenship. It was around the time everything was blossoming. I remember watching it droop over time, exposed to the torrential downpours that are customary in the springtime, wet and forgotten. The flag wasn’t deliberately uncared for, not intentionally ignored, it just wasn’t something that made it to the forefront of my family’s mind. While I did have a privileged upbringing, my family didn’t engage in the clichéd depiction of America that is projected. We never had a TV to engage classical sit coms, never watched football (I didn’t know the superball existed until I was 15), we were raised vegetarian so I’ve never had a hamburger.
Yet somehow, my unpatriotic family managed to guard this “Americanism” that is pancakes. I can imagine my mom popping around the kitchen early on weekends, rummaging in our hopelessly disorganized drawers, emerging triumphantly with odd amounts of flour, baking soda, and sugar. Sometimes a streak of powder smeared on her forehead.
The members who have already woken up animatedly discuss some political tidbit or another and my father absentmindedly stirs his coffee listening patiently to my mom who is usually the catalyst of the conversation. During this lively war of words, my mom manages to conjure up a batter. I never know quite how she does it, eyeballing the ingredients, magically creating the perfect formula. With a calculating eye she pours the thick and sour buttermilk into the batter, stirring the remaining bits expertly off the sides of the bowl. Over a hot and heavy cast iron griddle, she spoons the exact amount. At this moment she usually stands over the pan, surveying her work, waiting with the spatula, for the minute bubbles to form slowly around the outskirts of the pancake. By this point most of the family has gathered in the kitchen, rubbing sleep out of our eyes, brought by the smell and voices. A dull roar of talk and animal voices makes our typical law family din of chaos. The cat stalks haughtily across the table; the dog does his normal rounds shoving his nose into everyone’s laps, his tail destroying anything left in his wake, pausing to bark in a shrill exasperated tone if he doesn’t believe he is being adequately worshipped. Mom directs the setting of the table with her spatula, maneuvering the instrument like a wand or Excalibur, waiting for the magic apparitions of her requests. Then, with ease and poise, she attacks, flipping the pancake.
And always, when the golden hue sets in around the edges and a crispy brown skims the top, she announces, “Eat! You have to eat the pancakes before they get cold!” Normally as a family we eat once everyone has sat down at the table, waiting even if I am trailing behind to grab a jug of water. Pancakes are an exception. As they arrive at the various plates on the table, people begin. Chunks of fatty almish butter, a stream of sweet maple syrup, and always the tartly engaging, deep royal red Lincoln berries. This is the one rule that my mom is somewhat forceful about and never flexible. I didn’t grow up with a curfew save for pancakes. Not seated at the table when they are served? You don’t get pancakes.
Yesterday, as I squatted over a eucalyptus fire, covered in batter, flipping pancakes, this familiar scene set into my head. A wave of a new feeling washed over me, a pang of an incessant, yearning feeling. It sunk deep into my stomach, settling at the bottom, heavy. It nipped at my heels as I walked to grab the old baby clothes used as a rag. Moments like this appear at odd times when things that are familiar to you are slightly different while abroad.
So, when my host family had insisted (and I was thrilled to finally cook!) that I prepare some “American” snack for them, I immediately thought I could harness this one American trick I had up my sleeve. I couldn’t make the jumbled cuisine we made at home as they kept insisting on “American” food, “like burgers and brownies.” My previous attempt to produce brownies from margarine and chocolate bars had failed miserably (though a rather scrumptious cake was invented in the process) due to the lack of ingredients. To redeem myself pancakes were unanimously agreed upon, as ingredients for crepes were readily available. Eggs were collected from the neighboring food stalls, a small packet of baking powder (levure chemique) was found, and my host mom produced a bag of powdered milk proudly. I couldn’t recreate my mom’s buttermilk pancakes but this would work! Conversions were executed, powders were weighed on an ancient scale that looked like it once had been used in a doctor’s office, and finally a batter was created.
A different din was present here, a collection of noises vying to be the loudest. Shouts from pousse-pousse drivers in the street, banana vendors calling their merchandise, roosters screeching, and hymns blossoming from the next-door church set the ambiance for the constantly blaring french television set (sputtering in an out with electricity) and my 2 year old host brother speaking to himself in a mix of Franglache (French and Malagasy) amidst the curt but careful scolding of my host mother.
As I started to produce pancakes, I instinctively said to my host mom, my own mother’s voice in my ear, “Eat them while they are hot!” To this, she gently replied, “We eat when they are all done.” Slowly as the pile mounted and my host mom giggled with me at my Mickey Mouse pancake and my lack of dexterity with the spatula, the feeling abated. Together, as a family, we sat around the television, drinking an absurdly sweet orange frizzing soda, eating cold pancakes smeared with eucalyptus honey.