I’ve been at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival all week and yesterday’s writing prompt was food. I instantly knew the story that needed writing!
Nanny’s buttermilk pancakes were legendary in our family. Upon arrival on Washington Island for a family Christmas in July party or to celebrate our many family summer birthdays, the first family to arrive to the Island on Friday night would stop at Mann’s General Store and grab two quarts of buttermilk – before the summer people got them – and swing by Nanny’s to drop them off on their way to mom and dad’s house. A quick knock on the door to give her fair warning and then they’d push their way in. Nanny would grab the buttermilk from your hands and gruffly state, “Well, I don’t know that I’ll be making pancakes this weekend.” We would oblige her and beg, “Please Nanny, would you please make pan-a-cakes sometime this weekend?” Of which she’d snort while her eyes danced with pleasure and say, “We’ll see.” It was all part of the routine.
My grandma was not your typical rocking chair kind of grandma. A full-blooded Norwegian, she was a complex combination of love and sass. Nanny was more of a “do you have time for a game and a cocktail” kind of grandma. She loved nothing more than to pull out the cards and cribbage board and prompt you to deal up a “hand” while she mixed you a little drink. After several cribbage games (which were played for $1 a game) as well as several cocktails, you’d regretfully push your way from her kitchen table and make your way out the door to your next stop – the parent’s house.
Saturday was never pancake day as people were still arriving for whatever event it was that was being held for the weekend. Nanny was also busy Saturday morning baking and frosting the heaviest and tastiest carrot cake you could ever have the good fortune to taste. It was her donation to the family event of that day. I remember one year, she made some kind of torte instead of the traditional carrot cake and we all looked at her like she was Benedict Arnold.
The pancake breakfast was always held on Sunday morning before we packed up our belongings and headed to the ferry, which would take us back to the mainland and our real lives. Our seemingly reluctant pancake-making grandma was on the horn calling my parent’s house by 8:00 Sunday morning to see when the troops would arrive. My mother would reassure her that we would all arrive by 9:00 and she would do her best to get her motley crew moving. Mind you, this was no small task. Our family consisted of 8 kids all with significant others and a large contingency of children of all ages, shapes and sizes. All told, Nanny could on any given family-event weekend be turning flapjacks for upwards of 30 people.
We’d arrive in shifts. As we’d walk through the door to Nanny’s small retirement apartment, we’d breath in the smells of bacon, sausage, coffee and ohhh, buttermilk pancakes. The table would be set with a stack of plates, a pile of forks, butter, homemade maple syrup, strawberries and whipped cream. If you got there early enough, you would see the master chef mixing flour, salt, baking soda, egg and finally, buttermilk and just a bit of melted butter to a lumpy consistency. There would be numerous hot, greased pancake griddles anxiously awaiting the moment that the delectable batter would grace its surface and the ever so delicate and fluffy pancake would begin to take shape.
As the pancakes near their completion, rich golden brown discs the size of saucers with a lightness that would make one think they could simply float from the griddle, the first shift anxiously awaits their arrival. A stack of eight levitate to the center of the table and the breakfast soldiers quickly glance at one another and mentally do the math. If I take more than one, who will be left out in the dark. From the kitchen, the commander reminds them to empty the serving plate as another batch is nearly ready. That’s all they need and the reaching hands capture their prize.
The average eater could do about five of Nanny’s pancakes. These folks came and went from the dining room table and quickly made room for the next shift. They were common, ordinary, run of the mill sort of connoisseurs that the Pancake Princess simply fed. It was those brazen eaters – the ones that fell into a competition with one another to see just who was the pancake king of the weekend that captured Nanny’s heart. Nine, ten, twelve, uff dah, sixteen pancakes. The more they ate, the bigger the smile that graced my grandma’s face. Eventually, the competition would end with a groan and a belch and more often than not, my brother-in-law, Terry would once again be declared the winner. He would rub his belly and smile the victor’s smile. It was little wonder that he was the apple of my grandma’s eye.
My grandma died in 2008 and with it died the Sunday morning buttermilk pancake tradition. My brother, Patrick, has my grandma’s recipe and occasionally will rustle up a Sunday morning pancake breakfast. His pancakes are good, but they are not Nanny’s pancakes. They are made with the same ingredients and the same technique, but they are missing that one special quality. They are missing Nanny and that’s an ingredient that will never again be matched.