An ascending spring sun played a gentle game of tag with a retreating winter wind the morning I left my home. But as the day darkened the game turned rougher and the wind kicked the yellow ball like a schoolyard bully. Off it rolled, into some hole and the forest of night began to stack its trees around me. The wind went nowhere and everywhere all at once. It gusted past the emptied, flattened cornrows and into my flesh, as I stood on a gray corner of an American highway in central Illinois. I turned my backpack to block the slicing shafts of air and waited for someone to see my sign, “Key West” and help me down the road.
A big rig was somewhere to the west of me lumbering through the calisthenic, rhythmic moans of the need to move its freight. The pitch of its sound rose under the effort of each gear until the trucker yanked the shift and took her lower and stronger. I hoped that he might come my way and offer me a way out of this frozen place that bore me. Maybe he would be hungry like I was and we could stop at some amazing truck stop somewhere up the road. I longed for a big plate of pancakes. Their hot, steaming buttery sweetness would pack my 19-year-old belly and ready me for another plunge south to the land I would come to call my home.
I must have gotten those pancakes back then, because while many chefs collect recipes for all manner of meat, fish and fowl, (as I do); I also collect them for pancakes. I’ve got stacks of them.
There are so many types of pancakes that if Bubba Gump had turned his attention to them instead of crustaceans it might have moved some of the film’s locations from shrimp boats to truck stops. But don’t stop with the truck stop fantasy pancakes.
There are many stuffed, rolled and enfolded bread or batter type wrapped foods that fall into this vast category as well. I won’t leave our All-American flapjacks out all together. I might give them some Latino flair by dropping slices of pre-caramelized plantains into my cakes as the first side sizzles, hisses softly and signals me with yeasty bubbles that she’s ready to be flipped over to become golden on her topside too. I might continue on my migration for tropical flavors and serve my Plantain Pancakes with some local mangos that are peeled, pitted, sliced and touched with only a drop of honey and a squeeze of orange.
But I begin to think of savory dishes and I recall one I’ve made for many years called “Duck Bang-Bang”. The name comes from the fact that the flavors of the duck and the attendant sauces I serve rush from one side of your palate to the other with such force that they almost seem to “bang” into your taste buds perimeters. Envision one of those pro-wrestler guys who purposely propel their muscle-swollen bodies off the ropes in their ringed playpens to gather momentum to send their opponents to some neural “la-la land”. That’s the way the flavors work.
The duck is braised with all manner of Chinese influenced good things! I use the meaty legs from the very large birds called Moulard. It takes at least two days to make it. I use lemongrass, star anise, oranges, ginger, aromatic vegetables, herbs and other talisman’s of taste. When the duck meat can literally fall of the bone we shred meticulously by hand into soft strands and pile it into “two-tone” pancakes, which I make with saffron and red chilies molido.
Moving along the globe I think of the wonderfully perfumed enticement of Indian paratha cakes, redolent of the spice chests of that magic land.
And isn’t the great Mexican tortilla a type of pancake? It doesn’t quite seem to be a bread. All right it can be either! But it must be eaten!
How many tortillas and the tacos, burritos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, chimichangas, chalupas and flautas that can be made with them have you consumed? “Not enough” is my answer.
I haven’t even yet mentioned the various French crêpes, Jewish latkes, Korean stuffed and steamed baos, or the “price be damned” beluga caviar laden blini I would love to have with you.
Perhaps my destiny is to go full circle. Perhaps I will open up some “21st Century Pancake Parlor”. I will offer the pancakes of every land that strike me as the most alluring, delicious, mouth watering imaginable. And maybe some next generation drifter will drop his or her weary backpack down, grab a chair and let me restore them with whatever pancakes their heart desires or even just enough of whatever it takes to get them to the next place they dream to go.