|Metropolitan Museum of Art|
Although, rooting around online, I see that Sept. 25 is also International Pancake Day, through some alternate system. So two then, like regular Easter and Greek Easter.
I like pancakes—no big confession there, most people do. Though pancakes can get you into trouble. Georgie V's, a breakfast spot in Northbrook, lets you substitute pancakes instead of toast, a practice I've fallen into to satisfy my pancakes jones without eating too many. Now it's almost automatic, to ask for pancakes instead of toast. But eating breakfast in New York the weekend before last, I asked a waiter who was obviously straining the limits of his competence if I could have pancakes instead of toast. He shrugged and brought, along with my omelet, a huge plate piled with three pancakes the size of garbage can lids. I sent them away.
Given the special day, I thought I would do a kind of trust drop into the vault, assuming, over the years, I'd written something about pancakes. Boy, did I ever. The original title was "Quicker than heating them."
Krusteaz Microwave Mini-Pancakes are silver dollar-sized flapjacks, sold fully cooked but frozen to be prepared in toaster ovens.
I never gave them much thought, beyond a certain care to position each carefully upon the metal toaster oven rack, as they have a tendency to tilt and slip between the bars, plunging into the crumby nether-region of the toaster oven, becoming ruined.
Never gave them thought, until now, that is, when, in a moment, they change into a vastly significant emotional totem on par with Proust's madeleine and lime tea.
I'm sitting in the kitchen, taking my coffee and scanning the newspaper before my traditional bolt for the train. Ross, 9, enters stage left and invites me to whip him up a batch of fresh pancakes.
"Not this morning," I say. "I've got to be at the train in 10 minutes."
He shrugs and proceeds to the freezer. "OK," he says, removing a blue plastic bag of Krusteaz. "I'll eat these." He takes one from the bag. "I'll have the first one frozen."
He begins to eat the frozen disc.
"Stop!" I yell, leaping to my feet. "You can't do that!"
I have reached the age of 44 years without the concept of eating frozen pancakes ever crossing my mind, and it seems like a gross violation of our middle class norms, akin to shooting heroin.
"Mom lets us," he explains, having been joined by Kent, 7, who helps himself to the bag.
My life is dissolving around me.
"Honeeeeeeeeeey!" I call, in a reedy, adenoidal whine, bounding up the stairs to the bedroom. "Do you let the boys eat frozen pancakes?"
"Just the one," she says, as if quantity is the issue. I open my mouth to reply, but how can I articulate what I am trying to do? What my life is all about? To fight with all my strength against the sucking hellmouth of exhausted lower middle class existence, of resisting the inclination to pack the kids off to school in sweatpants and stained T-shirts, a rim of jelly around their lips, of my wife shuffling around the house all day in her frayed pink bathrobe, dropping glowing ash onto the carpet while I sit on the front porch in my underwear drinking Fiesta Scotch out of a Flintstones glass.
I can't muster a word; she delivers the coup de grace.
"Don't you remember, Elaine used to do it."
Elaine is the beautiful, poised, teenage daughter of our best friends, whose lives are so grounded in sophisticated good sense and rational living that I can never quite fathom why they spend time with a pack of flailing lunatics such as ourselves. Frankly, I sometimes worry that they do out of some kind of Christian mission—that their church encourages them to befriend dysfunctional families.
Defeated, retortless, I wander downstairs, back into the kitchen. And here is the odd part. I feel happy—happier than I have in weeks of head-in-a-vise tension and pit-of-the-stomach anxiety, the tarantella of work and writing and phone calls and crap. I relax, smile, and let go of my dream. We are never going to be the type of people who drive new cars or wear thick expensive sweaters or live in a clean house. We are going to wade through piles of soiled laundry, kicking aside garbage, shouting at each other as we dig around in the cluttered freezer for our next mouthful of frozen pancake.
And I'm OK with that.
I notice a Krusteaz pancake on the floor and bend down to pick it up. I hold it to my nose, draw in its pleasing, chilly vanilla wafer smell, and nearly pop it into my mouth and begin chewing. Instead, I toss it into the sink.
We do not eat off the floor. Not yet, anyway.
Later, at the office, in the editorial board meeting, I recount my pancake adventure to a colleague, a bit of that solidarity-building I normally fail so miserably at. I finish and sit back, waiting for her reciprocal confession, for her to laughingly admit some similar domestic failing—letting her toddlers suck on bricks of frozen peas perhaps.
Her response—though you see it coming, don't you?—shocks me.
"I wouldn't let those in my house," she says, narrowing her eyes in disgust and shivering at the thought.
Desperate to find some way to elevate my status after my unwise admission, I say, "For years, I wouldn't let my wife buy that bagged lettuce."
"Of course not," my colleague snaps, shaming me into silence. "It's not as fresh."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 22, 2004