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3 november 2011

The introduction to Ken Albala's Pancake: A global history is much longer than any of the book's chapters, for the excellent reason that pancakes require precise definition if you're going to talk about them at all. Take mu-shu-pork pancakes, for instance, the kind that I make most often. They're made of flour and water, kneaded to springiness, rolled very thin, and then fried on a cast-iron pan. The pan would seem to qualify them as pancakes, as would, well, their name. But in Albala's book these aren't pancakes at all. They are made from dough and they get their shape from a rolling pin. True pancakes are made from batter, and they get their shape from gravity.

Albala's brief chapters discuss pancakes as comfort food, celebration food, street food, working-class food, and exclusive food. The simplicity of pancakes lends them to multiple purposes. You can eat a lot of them cheaply; if you don't insist on syrup, you can munch them in the street. And because they're simple, you can make them while you're partying, or while you're assembling the rest of the ingredients for a haute cuisine meal.

As long as it's poured onto a pan, any thin combination of flour and liquid qualifies as a pancake. In the West they tend to be sweet; in the East, savory. In Europe and America, eggs are essential. In tracing the history of the pancake, Albala notes a age-long tension between the omelette and the pancake. At some point, there are too many eggs and too little flour, and the pancake tips over into omeletteness.

Albala's historical survey is notable for practicality. He seems rarely to have read an heirloom pancake recipe without trying to make it. At times "unfortunately, if the directions are followed precisely, the result is a horrible mess" (28). A handful of this and enough of that feature in many of them, so they can't really be followed precisely in the first place. Like many reconstuctive chefs, Albala spends a lot of time adapting old texts to new kitchens.

Many of Albala's global pancakes were unfamiliar to me. Despite some travel in places like Hungary, Denmark, and Venezuela, I have never eaten palacsinta, aebleskiver, or cachapas. American restaurants introduced me to injera and dosa, the gigantic meal/plate pancakes of Ethiopia and South India respectively. I've had crêpes on the street in France and in Irish homes (in Ireland, Mardi Gras is called "Pancake Tuesday").

Obviously, nothing compares to an American pancake, fresh and hot from the home stove, with butter and syrup. When I was growing up, that would be Aunt Jemima mix, hard margarine, and Log Cabin syrup. (My mother was a brand-name fanatic.) Aunt Jemima has a faintly chemical quality, hard margarine is highly artificial, and Log Cabin gets its flavor from factory vats that have once been within a few miles of a maple tree. But there's something about the whole ersatz experience that makes those ancestral pancakes ineffably comforting. Albala agrees; he includes his own personal-favorite pancake recipe, touting it as the best ever. But the thing about homemade favorites is that everyone has a different home.

Albala, Ken. Pancake: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2008.