For a lot of North Americans, breakfast is something often skipped during the work week. On the weekend however, time is made especially for preparing breakfast. One of my favourite things to make on a weekend morning is a big pile of pancakes, mostly due to their ease of preparation, and because of the sugary maple syrup splashed on top, a plateful of steaming hot pancakes feels like a treat set apart from the workday pace.
In preparation of writing this week’s blog post about pancakes, I did a bit of research on the subject. According to an online article by Rebecca Rupp about the history of pancakes from National Geographic’s special eight-month feature series, Future of Food, pancakes, or food like pancakes, are not a recent culinary invention. According to the article, anthropological researchers guess that Stone Age humans were cooking pancake-like foods over greased heated rocks due to the discovery and analysis of 30,000-year-old grinding tools that our Stone Age predecessors used to break down cereal grains, cattails, and ferns.
Both Rebecca Rupp’s National Geographic article, and Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food (1999) state that pancake-like foods made of cereal grains were made and enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who would sweeten them with honey. In fact, Davidson attests that one of the earliest written records of a pancake-food was in Apicius, a collection of Roman cookery recipes generally thought to be from the late fourth or early fifth centuries CE. Generally speaking, pancake-foods consisted of a batter of ground cereal grains, milk, and eggs which was then fried into small cake-like portions.
Rupp also mentions in her article that pancakes featured in the daily lives and meals of colonial North Americans as well, and have since colonial times been a part of traditional North American breakfasts. According to Rupp, “pancakes—also known as hoe cakes, johnnycakes, or flapjacks—were made with buckwheat or cornmeal”, which would have been more easily produced and financially accessible in the American colonies than fine wheat flour. Comparatively, Rupp’s description of American ‘griddlecakes’ (as beloved by Thomas Jefferson) places this kind of pancake-food closer to today’s contemporary pancakes, as they contain a leavening agent, and thus are fluffier and more tender. Pancakes became a staple of the North American breakfast, and was a regular inclusion to the near-iconic bacon and eggs breakfast for Americans from then on.
In her book, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, author Abigail Carroll describes how Victorian-era culinary writers and intellectuals commented on the state of mid-nineteenth and late-nineteenth century breakfasts in America. According to Carroll, prospering middle-class families in America often had breakfasts that included “a combination of cold and hot meat as well as baked goods and porridge” (136) and that breakfast was, for many American families then, “the second-largest meal of the day” (136).
Carroll says that this sort of big-breakfast was considered generally acceptable for Americans that engaged in arduous chores long before actually sitting down for their breakfasts (136). Farmers, travelers, and general labourers were often working for several hours in the morning before returning to their kitchens or to local cafes, taverns, and restaurants for their breakfast meals. It makes sense then that these Americans were tucking in to large, calorie-heavy breakfasts—they were making up for the energy already spent in country or factory toil.
Big breakfasts were beginning to become a regular inclusion in the average morning for many Americans, including the richer classes. The big breakfasts that the richer classes were eating were similar to those of the lower classes and often included syrup-soaked pancakes alongside fried eggs, bacon, toast, porridge, and cups of coffee and tea. According to Carroll, “the tremendous size and complexity of meals, including breakfast, contributed greatly to the dyspepsia pandemic” (that is, a pandemic of chronic indigestion), as did “shifting work patterns in an urbanizing and mechanizing nation” (137). As workers began to shift from the workspaces of fields and factories to those of offices and desks, Carroll states that many late-nineteenth century writers and social commenters were writing published papers about dyspepsia, and that they were citing it as a “disease of civilization” (137). Carroll sums it up succinctly by stating that “the traditional farmer’s breakfast was simply no longer appropriate to a modern urban lifestyle, at least not for the majority of the middle class” (137).
Big breakfasts, or farmer’s breakfasts, are far less frequent in contemporary North American diets than they were during the mid- and late-nineteenth centuries. The Victorian dyspepsia concerns have also faded as current eating habits have shifted to reflect the increasingly urbanized, mechanized, and fast-paced work schedules and business environments of today. Modern breakfasts have changed to suit the workday schedule and its requirements of convenience. Pancakes, therefore despite their quick preparation (especially since the twentieth century advent of manufactured box mixes), have largely become a weekend, treat breakfast food. Often pancakes are made and served as a breakfast meal on their own just as often as they are included in a large and leisurely Sunday morning breakfast spread.
This Sunday’s breakfast was a batch of pancakes served with heated, pure maple syrup. Despite a 1898 parenting manual’s inclusion of pancakes as breakfast foods as part of a “graveyard diet” (138), and associated Victorian-era dyspepsia concerns, I would encourage readers to make pancakes from scratch as a weekend treat. Box mixes are all well and good, but pancakes made from scratch with fresh buttermilk, vanilla extract, and egg are a welcome break from a work week of breakfasts of coffee and soggy breakfast cereal.