I still cringe at the memory of the worst pancake I ever tasted. I was eating in a crummy dining room inside a motel that formerly stood at Eighth Street and Main. The hotcake was as thick as a Frisbee and just as tough. I shoved my uneaten stack back at my waitress.
"How can the kitchen screw up a stack of pancakes?" I asked her.
"You think those are bad," she said. "Wait until you taste the bacon."
A pancake doesn't involve much more than flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, milk and an egg. (And that's only if you're one of the few people not relying on packaged mixes such as the Aunt Jemima brand, which the R.T. Davis Milling Company first mass-marketed in 1890, when the company's headquarters were in St. Joseph.) But there's an art to making a good one. I know this because mastering the pancake marked my first — my only — success as a line cook. (The gig was pretty short-lived.)
My mentor, a gruff, no-nonsense guy who had honed his cooking skills in the Navy, revealed his secret for perfect pancakes: The grill must be hot but not too hot, and a thin scrim of grease or oil on the flattop is superior to butter, which scorches. The batter shouldn't have too much milk or cream or too much air — "Use a wooden spoon, never a whisk," he told me. The art is in knowing exactly when to take a spatula and flip the flapjack over. The longer a pancake sits on the grill, the chewier and denser it becomes.
I can still make a decent pancake at home, but I'm a firm believer that the best pancakes are those served in restaurants. The pancake is a classic comfort food: It's filling, loaded with carbohydrates and typically inexpensive. A perfect one doesn't sit like a lump of lead in your belly. Instead, it's satisfying enough to energize and to ward off hunger until afternoon.
When the conversation turns to griddle cakes, I like to give a shout-out to the venerable IHOP, the chain that has served hotcakes for a half century. The downside, of course, is that most IHOP dining rooms are dreary and uncomfortable and loaded with small children. (I don't tolerate temperamental toddlers until well after noon.)
A steaming, butter-drenched short stack seemed like an excellent way to meet a Saturday morning once the weather began to cool. My editor agreed that pancake season had arrived, but he imposed limits.
"IHOP? No! It's a chain," he said with a grimace. Instead, we arranged to meet at Simply Breakfast early one morning — really early, at 2 a.m. We sat down to sample the flapjacks just in time to turn back the clock one hour as daylight saving time expired. He had been up all night. I had watched the only movie I know of that makes pancakes a subplot — the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, which was hot stuff for its day — and retired early to dream about good syrup. I set the alarm to give me enough time to drive to Westport (which I knew would be loaded with intoxicated revelers) and find a parking spot close to the restaurant. Parking is at a premium in Westport after midnight, especially when there's an extra wee hour built into the party.
Size: A saucer
Thickness: Esquire magazine
Color: Golden brown, flawless
Syrup: Maple-flavored corn syrup
Price: $6.49 (includes sides and coffee)
Just one other table was occupied in the cavernous (and harshly lighted) room at 2 a.m. A nerdy couple was having an intimate conversation about typefaces. I dislike ordering at a counter any time of day, but it was particularly annoying at this hour, when a little friendly service might have been comforting. But there I stood, bleary-eyed, debating between the sweet-cream pancakes and the multigrain variety.
Scott chose the multigrain, which turned out to be denser and drier than the sweet-cream version. The latter looked gorgeous but were a little too sweet, as if they had been made with Duncan Hines cake mix. Both stacks were spongy and absorbent, engineered perhaps to soak up Westport booze and late-night disappointment. We both preferred the multigrain, but neither of us came close to finishing a two-cake stack. The search for alternatives was on.