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The Pancake Man and Me: How a Short Stack Saved My Life

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With a little digging, we're sometimes lucky enough to unearth Heirloom Recipes, dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next. 

Today: Coping with the loss of a loved one through pancakes—and learning how to forgive oneself. 

“Whaddaya want?” the waitress asks, her gruff Western New York, Southern-sounding accent contrasting her grandmother hair and skin dappled with liver spots. This is Bertha’s Diner. Its rainbow storefront, jukebox, and walls plastered with oversized records and photos of Elvis “The King” Presley are something out of a time warp. Order placed, the waitress clicks her pen, sliding it into the breast pocket of her white button-up besmirched with coffee stains, and ambles toward the kitchen. 

They come in twos: dinner-plate-sized, golden brown mammoths. No-frills buttermilk pancakes are the mark of any decent diner worth its bottomless coffee and plushy booths. However, chocolate chip, blueberry, and even banana do in a pinch. The constants are the toppings: a healthy amount of maple syrup and salted butter, the kind shaped like a miniature scoop of ice cream.

Pancakes are my non-order order—a Hail Mary pass for a flippant person like myself, who always needs five more minutes to look at a menu. Except when I ate breakfast with Myles Slatin. For him and I, pancakes were the menu.

More: Green pancakes are also great.

Myles and my dad taught together at the University at Buffalo, staying close after Myles retired. He served as my unofficial grandfather, as both of my parents’ fathers died some twenty years before I was born. Myles smothered me in suffocating hugs and I found his moth ball-esque scent comforting.

From when I was five to fifteen years old, my dad, Myles, and I shared countless pancake breakfasts. We picked Myles up at his house and he'd amble slowly down the driveway, his shaky gait betraying his advanced age otherwise hidden by a boisterous laugh and unquenchable sense of humor. His bald head bobbled atop a long neck and slim body that grew frailer with each passing year. His posture was just shy of hunchback. “Ready for some pancakes?” Myles rhetorically asked. I always was.

One morning, after eating our pancake fill, Myles bestowed me with a gift: a ceramic stack of pancakes, about two-inches high and three-inches wide, complete with a glistening pool of maple syrup and a pat of butter. “I’m your pancake man,” Myles said. Over the years, the pancakes moved from my desk, to the coffee table, to the dining room as the centerpiece.

A stack of pancakes, illustrated by my mom.

As I grew older, our breakfasts became less frequent. At first, horseback-riding lessons and swim meets began to overtake my Saturday mornings. Then, around fourteen years old, an eating disorder consumed my life and me for the next two years. I lacked the energy to eat and, if I did, pancakes prohibited me from the size negative-zero frame I so desired. “Sorry,” I’d tell Myles, choking back tears as I ate my 20 pre-portioned almonds, “Maybe next weekend.” He always offered the same response: “That’s alright. I miss you.”

On the few occasions I saw Myles, he gave me peculiar gifts: a bird figurine, a rubber snail, a rock, a disposable camera. But we occasionally ate pancakes—or at least Myles did—which meant life was good.

A year after the bizarre gifts started, Myles was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. By then I was fifteen years old and knew the prognosis was bleak. So, I stopped visiting Myles. I continue to question that decision. I blame immaturity and the naïve idea that maybe, just maybe, if I didn’t acknowledge Myles’s imminent death, it wouldn't happen. 

But Myles passed away on May 9, 2010. He was 86 years old. I didn’t go to his funeral, opting to sit catatonic at the kitchen table, staring at the pancake statue. I thought about Myles buried beneath the earth in one of the plaid, long-sleeve shirts he wore year-round. I thought about why he liked pancakes (the fluffy insides and comforting nostalgia). I contemplated my own selfishness for not visiting Myles when he needed family the most.  

Now, I’m in college and a food writer. I have a degree in baking and pastry. I long to cook Myles pancakes—something beyond my culinary capabilities back then—and to tell him how he helped save me. When I didn’t want to eat, I looked at those ceramic pancakes and thought of him. I thought about how my disease robbed me of all those breakfasts with Myles. If I could, I’d grease a griddle, use my smallest measuring cup to pour on some batter, and cook each side to a perfect golden brown, flipping only once. I’d stack the pancakes high, pouring plenty of maple syrup on top, until amber dripped down the sides and pooled at the bottom. I’d add a hefty-sized pat of butter, too, watching as it melted until it was no longer a square or shape of any sort. 

No-Frills Buttermilk Pancakes

Slightly adapted from Cook's Illustrated

Serves 3 to 4 (makes about 8, 3-inch pancakes)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup milk (whole, preferably)
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle/skillet
Maple syrup and butter, for serving

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

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Tags: Long Reads, Food52 Life, Food History, Heirloom Recipes, Comfort Food