The Pancake Show

One Friday night, I was at a party and met this guy with two kids who lived near us. “What are you doing in the morning?” I asked. “I’m not doing anything.” “Can I come to your house and make pancakes?” He looked totally flabbergasted, and he went made a beeline for our mutual friend Sioux Watson and said, “See that guy over there in the green pants? Is he crazy?”
Smiling, she said, “No, that’s just Lex.”
“He asked if he could come to our house and make pancakes in the morning. Is that OK?”
After he left, I went to check in with Sioux and got the story. This event happened well into the second year – he did let me come over and it went fine, except that his young son didn’t like pancakes – a first for the pancake show.
Necessity is the mother of invention: How I started the Pancake Show

In 1981 my wife Ann and I opened a natural foods grocery store, Wellspring Grocery, in Durham. Our daughter Emily was born the next year. I was born in 1952 when raising children was delegated to mothers, or in a lot of cases to nannies. I was determined to participate in Emily’s childhood more than my father had in mine so Ann and I decided we’d split the work week – alternating between working at the store and staying home with Emily.

The plan failed on two fronts. First, Emily didn’t eat anything but breast milk and this was before the days of pumping, so when Emily got hungry, which was often, I’d have to walk her over to the store to be fed. This meant Ann was being constantly interrupted while at work but I of course was never interrupted by her on the days I was working. I was making a couple of trips a day and it wasn’t easy for Ann to stop what she was working on to nurse. The second problem was that Ann and I did things very differently. Ann approaches a job from a pragmatic, logical place and does all the left brain things like scheduling, payroll and planning while I’m a hopeless romantic who approaches everything from the standpoint of esthetics so I enjoy working on marketing or signage. Our differing approaches were driving our employees crazy.

In 1986 our second child Gillian was born. By then we had moved to a larger store with many more employees and all the complications of running a larger business. Our employees had finally had enough and begged us not to do what we had been doing. They said, “Ann works on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and she does things her way, then you come in Tuesdays and Thursdays and change everything.”

Ann and I decided that I would be the primary person at Wellspring and she would stay with the girls and work on business tasks from home. As part of this agreement she asked for relief on the weekends so she could get some much needed R&R. Saturday mornings I was to be solely responsible for the girls, then 4 and 1 from the minute they woke up until the afternoon.

The first few Saturdays didn’t work as I tried unsuccessfully to entertain the girls with books and other kids activities. If we stayed at home they wanted to be with their mom and if we went out I was overwhelmed. I would take them out to a restaurant and two kids under 6 at a restaurant is oftentimes a train wreck. I’d put them in the car seats, and then move them from car seats to high chairs – and I was a rookie at both of these activities. And I also lacked the one surefire way to calm one of the girls down which was to nurse. One time I took the girls shopping and I found them these beautiful cotton-knit long black dresses. I recall trying to get the right sizes while they misbehaved in the store. Unfortunately I lost my temper with Emily and yelled at her which certainly didn’t do anything to improve her mood or behavior. Then it dawned on me. I should play to my strengths. I’m a very social person and I’ve been told I make delicious pancakes. I decided to book Saturday morning play dates at different people’s houses with the inducement being I’ll make the pancakes. This was the beginning of the pancake show.

I started with close friends whose kids knew my kids. I would show up between 8:30 and 9:00 with a well seasoned cast iron griddle I’d inherited from my parents, pancake batter, maple syrup and my two girls in tow. I had found a way to entertain my girls but it was also a break for the other families too since it gave them a Saturday morning activity for their kids. I was soon scheduling pancake shows regularly thanks to word of mouth. I would see people during the week and they’d ask, ’Does the Pancake Show have a gig this Saturday?’. This was generally successful for all parties involved except for that one odd occasion when I served up my perfectly cooked fluffy pancakes and the host child didn’t like pancakes. Who knew such a child existed? The pancake show became a regular Saturday morning outing for us – the girls were entertained and fed.

The Price of Pancakes

When our children were older they went to the Carolina Friends School. Ann coordinated the school auction and she included a Pancake Show in the auction. To my surprise it garnered a lot of interest. A local cardiologist bought it for a few hundred dollars. I thought, “God, for this amount of money I’ve got to spruce up the show, maybe bring some fruit, some bacon.” I told the cardiologist my plan. “No need to bring bacon, these are all cardiologists,” he said. I decided to bring it anyway. I’ve never seen a group of folks dive into a pile of bacon they way they did. They had clearly been in a state of bacon deprivation – there wasn’t a crumb on the plate. It seems there may be many things on which people can disagree but the tastiness of bacon is a common unifier. Even 4 year olds can agree. One Sunday morning when cooking pancakes and bacon at home, Gillian asked, “Daddy, where’s bacon come from?”. I told her it comes from a pig, Jupe.” Her reply, “Pigs are gooder than bacon.” From the mouth of babes. The cardiologists may have gone back to denying themselves after that breakfast but for a while they really lived.

All Good Things Must Come to an End or How Being A Creature of Habit Can Be Costly

Saturday mornings were reserved for the pancake show. Someone bought one at the auction one year and I don’t know why but I agreed to host one on a Sunday morning for his child’s birthday party. After years of Saturday pancake shows I had a routine. Sundays had their own routine of family breakfast at home, maybe brunch out or perhaps golf. I awoke on the agreed upon Sunday morning and soon received an early call from friends inviting us to brunch. Off Ann and I went with nary a thought of the pancake show in my head. When we got back, the answering machine was flashing. Ann listened to the message and the color had sort of drained from her face. “You’d better go listen to the messages.”

Message 1 – slight concern: “Lex, just checking in. Making sure you’re straight. Today’s the day.”

Message 2 – concern mixed with irritation : “Lex. Hope you’ll be showing up soon. All my guests are arriving at 10:45.”

Message 3 – no concern, only anger: “GOD DAMN IT LEX, I DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE PANCAKES!

I called and apologized profusely and offered to cook the whole group dinner and I’d also provide the wine. They extracted their pound of flesh from me for my mistake. They kept drinking bottle after bottle of wine and stayed for hours – well past midnight. This was the most expensive pancake show I’d ever hosted and was the last Pancake Show as part of the Carolina Friends Auction.

The only Pancake Shows now are in Blowing Rock where we escape sometimes during the hot summer months. The griddle lives at our house there. We enjoy watching Wimbledon and invite the neighbors to join us for pancakes and match watching.

I was always slightly embarrassed by the name “The Pancake Show.” It sounded a bit grandiose, like we were a little full of ourselves. I tried to change it to Cakes and Company but the girls wouldn’t have it. It had been the Pancake Show for three or four years and the Pancake Show it stayed.

Pancake Show Pancakes

I love this recipe. The pancakes have a magical texture. The opposite of gooey or rubbery. It’s easy to overtax pancake batter and with a 100% wheat flour batter the gluten develops and the pancakes get an unpleasant texture. Our recipe has cornmeal in it which gives you a pancake that is not rubbery or doughy. They’re light because the whipped egg whites are folded in, but they retain a texture that I find ‘toothsome’ because of the coarse milled cornmeal.

2 cups flour
(I prefer 1 cup whole wheat, ½ cup cornmeal, ½ cup unbleached white but you can adjust the types of flour you use)
1 Tbs baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs honey or sugar (optional)
3 eggs
2 C buttermilk
¼ c. oil

1. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar into a large bowl.
2. Separate eggs, adding buttermilk and oil to the yolks.
3. Mix well. If using honey, add now.
4. Beat egg whites until stiff.
5. Slowly add wet ingredients to dry and mix. Try not to over-mix as this will make the pancakes tough.
6. Fold in the egg whites and let the batter rest for about 10 minutes.
7. Cooking these on a seasoned griddle or cast iron skillet will dramatically improve your pancake quality.

*Nicely browned pancakes are also better, the result of a hot surface and a patient spatula.

*Many years ago, the agriculture department of the state planted 40 different blueberry bushes in the lot across from our Blowing Rock house as an experiment to see if blueberries would grow in that location. The blueberries are oftentimes ripe around the time we’d have the pancake breakfast so for those who enjoyed them we could make blueberry pancakes. If you have blueberries, ladle the batter onto the griddle, then push the blueberries into the pancake. I prefer making them this way rather than adding them all to the batter so I can have more uniform pancakes. There isn’t one with 20 berries and another with 6. This also allows for making blueberry pancakes for those who like them and others can have theirs without.