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On Pancakes and Fatherhood

February 13, 2010 2 comments

Dad at the grill, circa 1971*

I was 24 years old when my father died on Valentine’s Day in 1982. He was 56, only five years older than I am now. I think that’s when I first started to consider myself a grownup — I’m still considering it, but over the years I’ve come to accept some of the trappings of adulthood. Like driving, which I only learned after my father’s death — mildly unexpected for the son of an auto mechanic. I decided I needed my license after figuring out I wasn’t likely to make any more progress toward a PhD and so needed one of those job thingies, which were generally not located within walking or bicycling distance of my off-campus apartment. I inherited his living-room-sized pale blue ’77 Chevy Impala, and promptly dented all four corners of his last baby the week I took ownership.

I’m also disinclined toward household repair projects — though I have, with great effort, fixed a bathroom subfloor and installed flooring that’s nearly even if you don’t look too closely. On the plus side, I don’t eat red meat nor do I smoke two packs a day of unfiltered Camels — or any quantity of any cigarette for that matter — so the chances are good that I’ll live a bit longer than he did.

But one place where I think I compare favorably with my paragon of adult masculinity is in the kitchen. My dad liked to cook. Once he recovered from his first major heart attack at 49, he started to take over the grocery shopping and dinner preparation which had previously been my mom’s job. But even while he was working and all the kids still lived at home, there were two meal-related tasks that were his purview exclusively: barbecue and pancakes.

I may not be much for grilling dead animals, but I do a pretty good job with breakfast, and so was thinking about my dad this morning while preparing the breakfast that was the final event of my middle son’s fourteenth birthday party sleepover. After making some fresh strong coffee to get myself motivated, I put together my weekend special which I call “IHOP at home” — orange juice, pancakes, hash browns, eggs, bacon. I made veggie bacon for me and my youngest son — who is a stricter vegetarian than I am — but also regular pork bacon because I’m that kind of good dad. Besides, nothing associated with fatherhood disgusts me anymore since getting through the bottom-wiping stage.

Sure, I cut a few corners. I used frozen hash brown patties, partly to save effort but mostly because I have never made hash browns that didn’t end up a soggy oily mess. And I used a pancake mix — my favorite, New Hope Mills Buckwheat — but then I’m really honoring my dad in this respect, since he always used a mix. Granted his mix of choice was Bisquick, which I don’t ever recall being used for anything but pancakes — but I’m sure he would have loved these too.

Thinking about Dad’s meticulous attention to detail — getting all the lumps out of the batter, precisely adjusting the temperature under the griddle, making sure the pancakes turned out perfectly round and lightly brown — I recognize the source of my own OCD. Which was probably as helpful in his career as it is in mine, though probably also making neither of us the kind of guy you’d want to share a kitchen with.

I don’t know if he did much cooking before he got married, but at about the same age as he was when he got busy in the kitchen — though for very different reasons — I find myself taking pleasure in fixing my favorites again. I make a mean cheddar and broccoli quiche that my kids as well as my partner consume with enthusiasm, and which only needs a salad or some raw carrots to be called a meal. I can nail an eggplant parmigiana with varying degrees of difficulty — everywhere from slicing and breading and frying the eggplant to buying it pre-sliced, pre-breaded and frozen — and am nearly always happy with the results. I’ve devoted an entire post to my banana bread, and I think maybe writing about cooking is how I share my pleasure with those of you I may never even meet. Dad may not have been much for writing, but he sure did love to feed his friends and family.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad.



*My dad graciously posed in the chef’s outfit which, including the bellows, was a gag gift someone gave him on his birthday. This was in the Catskills where we spent summers while I was growing up. He rarely smiled as much as he did when he was there. On the drive up, once we got off the highway, he’d roll down the windows and exclaim “Smell! Smell!” It sure did smell a lot better than Brooklyn back in the day when most apartment buildings burned trash in residential incinerators.

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