Guilty with an Explanation

Posted on January 17, 2011


A few days ago, Earth Ocean Sky Redux posted about her recent attempt at making pancakes for the family. The word “attempt” gives away the ending, of course, but I think you’ll enjoy the pictures as well as her narrative. By presenting photographic evidence, EOS seemed to be throwing herself on the mercy of the court, which later ruled that she’d been working without benefit of her first cup of coffee and was not responsible for her actions.

That post, while highly amusing, also brought back some dark memories for me. I have been banned from making pancakes in my house, although not forever. I’m on probation for five years, and will then be allowed to return to pancake making activity, but only with strict adult supervision. Until then, I am not permitted to be within three feet of the griddle or any large frying pan and may not come into contact with a spatula before 12 p.m. These restrictions, as you will see, are harsh, cruel, and unjustified.

I have always loved making pancakes. I want you to know that. What took place on that fateful morning in 2008 was not intentional or premeditated. And it was not my fault.

We use a boxed pancake mix, called “Fluffy & Complete.” This means that you need add only water to make pancakes that are light, moist, and scrumptiously perfect. (Pretty much anyone with half a brain can do it, a description that I have no doubt includes me.) The powdered mix contains flour and dried egg yolks, but it also has aluminum phosphate. How someone thought to add aluminum to a food product, I couldn’t tell you. I only know that if I had done that, I’d have been banished to a small tent in the backyard.

It was a cold, bright Sunday morning and I had promised to make a pancake breakfast, something I’d been doing with great success for many years. I liked pouring out the batter into nearly perfect creamy white circles, then watching as the bubbles formed and popped. The outer edges would turn a light brown, indicating that it was time to cook the other side. Our griddle is the size of a small aircraft carrier, big enough for about eight pancakes. The plastic spatula is large and exactly suited for turning them over. Everything looked good.

Except for one minor detail: we were almost out of pancake mix.

The directions on the box indicated full cups of mix for each quantity of pancakes desired. I needed two cups; we had only about a cup and a third.

To make up the difference, I added two-thirds of a cup of flour, but no matter how vigorously I stirred, the flour refused to soak in. The batter had puffs of white powder that just wouldn’t go away. I decided to add a little warm water to get it to dissolve. That seemed to work, but now the batter was too thin, I guess because I added too much water. So I scooped out another half cup of flour and threw that in. By now I was completely lost, similar to what happens when I make one too many turns while driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I couldn’t remember what I’d done, but there was no turning back.

I plugged in the griddle and tried to ignore the slight tightness in my stomach. Questions were yelled in from various parts of the house. Questions such as, “How are those pancakes coming?” I answered with a hint of irritation, just enough to hide my growing panic.

“How do you think they’re coming?” I said. That seemed to shut them up.

I poured the batter onto the griddle and immediately noticed that it was neither creamy white nor forming nearly perfect circles. I refer you again to the EOS photos, if necessary. The similarities are striking, with one important difference: hers seem to be three-dimensional. That is, they look as though they have thickness. My batter kept spreading, the way skim milk would if you poured it onto a table.

Confident in my cooking skills as well as my ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances, I waited for the bubbles and the telltale browning edges. They never appeared. Bubbles, apparently, require some depth to form. And because there was no thickness, there were also no real edges to brown. These weren’t going to become pancakes, I soon realized. They would be more like crepes. Really thin crepes.

“Does everyone like crepes?” I asked, in a suddenly pitiful voice. I was relieved when no one answered.

I knew that eventually I would have to flip the pancakes over, if just to see what might be happening on the other side. The spatula slid under them smoothly and easily and they turned without the least hint of resistance. I could feel my confidence returning and began to dance the moronic dance of a cook who has no idea that he’s about to serve up a disaster.

“Who wants pancakes?” I yelled, as I began to distribute them onto plates. As each person came in and took a plate, it did not go unnoticed that the stacks of three pancakes were surprisingly short, and had a color not normally associated with breakfast. These pancakes looked similar to those round rubber sheets you might use to open a jar whose lid is on too tight. Someone mentioned the color.

“The mix has aluminum phosphate in it,” I said. “Did you know that? No, I didn’t think so.”

They began to add butter and syrup to the tops of the pancakes. Everything ran off like rain hitting a freshly waxed car. The pancakes sat in the middle of the plates, flat islands surrounded by lakes of butter and syrup. Everyone tried to take a bite, but as thin as they were, these things had the elastic strength of some space-age material designed to shield astronauts from radiation.

After a few minutes of struggling and pretending, we all decided that the best thing would be to throw the pancakes outside to feed the hungry, frostbitten birds hovering in the backyard. I opened the door and grasping one of the pancakes from my own plate, I flung it out toward the trees about forty feet away. Now, a pancake should not possess the ability to be flung. It should break into pieces as soon as it leaves your hand. This did not happen. It held together and flew the entire forty feet, then bounced off a tree and hit the ground, still in one piece. A bird eventually descended from its branch to inspect the offering. It pecked at the pancake and I felt some comfort, knowing that these birds, cold and hungry, would have something to eat. The bird pecked a few more times, then flew up into the tree, where about twenty other birds were waiting for his report. Then they all flew away and never came back. The rest of my family spent the next ten minutes seeing how far they could throw their pancakes, and if they could get one to bounce off two trees without breaking. My daughter claimed to have done this, but by then everyone else had lost interest, so there were no witnesses.

I’ve served almost three-fifths of my probation, having appealed every year to get my sentence reduced to time already served. Those requests have all been denied, but I can see a light at the end of this long and dark tunnel. Just last month I was granted visitation rights to the mixing bowl. I was permitted to say the word pancake out loud, one time. And the birds have begun to return, although cautiously. There’s a haunted look in their eyes as they glance nervously toward the back door. They’re a lot like family, those birds. Exactly like family, in fact. They don’t forget anything.