Transforming Pancakes

The Sharplin clan has only three family traditions: golf, sarcasm, and something we call English pancakes. I did not inherit the Curse of the Course – indeed, a notorious story from my childhood involves sneaking away from my Dad at the driving range in order to play Tatooine in a sandtrap. Sarcasm, of course, is sooooo not a problem for me. And that leaves English pancakes, which are thin and fluffy and are served piping hot with sugar and lemon juice. But they’re not crêpes. They’re sooooo English.

Sunday mornings, we’d gather in the chapel of Grandma and Grandpa’s kitchen-dining room to partake in the holy brunch-ritual. The holiest moment did not involve eating, but rather bearing witness as Grandpa Sharplin flipped each English pancake up, up towards the ceiling, then caught each one flawlessly in his black cast-iron skiddle. To my young eyes, this was a gravity-defying feat, which made Grandpa a wizard, or at least a badass.

It’s revealing that this is one of only two memories I retain of Grandpa Sharplin. Once golf was off the table, he lacked to means to connect with his grandson, save for the weekly ritual of brunch. Accordingly, he schooled me in the protocol of eating English pancakes with the same rigour he’d have used to shape me into a golf pro: Shake just a bit of icing sugar around the edge. No, don’t dump it, then it won’t spread as far. Loosen your grip on the spoon. Now take just a slice of lemon…no, just one slice. You need to work on your slice.

(In Grandpa’s defense, it should be said that although the other memory I have is of him watching television, he did that like a badass, too. In the days before remote controls, he’d devised a string-and-pulley system to mute the commercials without getting out of his Lay-Z-Boy. The jerry-rig made good use of an odd boxwood statue that sat beside the TV. The statue, of a Chinese boy fishing with his foo dog, was supposedly “liberated” by an ancestor during the Boxer Rebellion. Passed down through the generations, the statue (its name is “Joss”) makes colonialism an awkward fourth family tradition.)

After Grandpa died, my Dad inherited the recipe for English pancakes, either by claiming right of patrilineage or else because his siblings had had enough of the round devils to last a lifetime. Dad typed out the recipe using our daisy wheel typewriter, giving it a fixity it never would have had as an oral tradition. Within a few years, it was considered verboten for other Sharplins to even attempt English pancakes without first consulting the holy scroll.

And though it was considered good form to foist the food on guests, the recipe itself became a closely guarded secret. I joined the conspiracy without question when, as an adult, I eagerly accepted my own copy of the printed recipe (in fact, it was the original daisy wheel printing; my Dad had it committed to memory by then, which isn’t that hard since it’s all rounded off to cups and tablespoons). So it happened that, after I’d agreed to email the recipe to my cousin D in Calgary, I was aghast to hear that D’s daughter had shared it with her class as part of an assignment on family traditions. How DARE she?

By this point, I’d been to France a few times, so I knew about those continental knock-offs they called crêpes. Strangely, despite having visited England, I’d never found our version on a menu. But then, I’d never met a Sharplin in England, either. It turns out a disproportionate amount of us emigrated to New Zealand, where I still believe to this day the streets are paved with English pancakes, and where it is against the law to even suggest putting jam or syrup on the table while they’re served.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the tradition unfolded in a handful of kitchens, air-flipped and then served to unimpressed guests who are used to eating stacks of fluffy buttermilk pancakes in one go, not waiting for one thin disc at a time. By the time they’ve sprinkled the icing sugar and the lemon juice (twice each – you need to roll it up and reapply), the pancakes are cold anyway, which technically makes them Scotch pancakes. Or, as one guest pointed out, Shrove pancakes, the kind you’d have at Lent, if religion was one of your family traditions. Suddenly the Church of Grandpa Sharplin made a lot of sense.

When my son came on the scene, I too enjoyed the worshipful look in his eyes when I would flip a pancake two or even three feet in the air. But then S went gluten-free, and X discovered Eggos, which he could make himself while I was checking my morning emails…and so the household lost its taste for tradition.

Until: France. Here, we’ve found it nearly impossible to avoid gluten, and French supermarket employees can’t even pronounce “Eggo.” Besides, nearly three months in, we’re all a bit homesick. It seemed like the right time to try French English pancakes. For me, bearing the weight of generations on my shoulders, it was a high-stakes experiment. I waited till I had all the best ingredients and tools: baking powder (levure chimique), free-range eggs, a properly-sized frying pan, and a dressing gown that could be easily washed clean of batter stains.

I’d left the recipe back home, but like my Dad, I knew the cups and tablespoons by heart. However, France is a metric country, so Step One involved a lot of Google conversions and eyeballing. I couldn’t tell if my French burner heated up the same as in Canada, and weren’t these eggs smaller than back home? My wife and son wisely kept their distance while I swore and whisked my way through the ritual. X passed the time playing a farming sim game on my tablet, where he can make pancakes instantly by swiping his finger half an inch (12.7 mm) across the screen.

The results were — as a Sharplin might say — on par. Alas, I’d forgotten to buy icing sugar, so we broke tradition (sorry, Grandpa) and went with a French condiment called caramel à tartiner which tastes like salted butterscotch and God. The cross-cultural contamination has begun; there’s no going back.


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