On Shrove Tuesday

Dad’s pancakes, and making peace with the past.

I’m not sure when I first tasted pancakes. For some reason, I don’t think my mum was the first person to make me them. At my church school, Mrs Gaskell cooked one for the whole class on Shrove Tuesday, everyone getting their own bit. That’s one of my best memories of St. Kentigern’s, but otherwise, pancakes remind me of my dad.

I’ve never written much about my dad—mainly, to be honest, because there’s not much there. The first fifteen years of my life were moulded by my mum’s divorce, but in the time before a different woman threw him out, my dad made next to no impact on me. I’ve inherited much of who he was—his sense of humour and fondness for pulp, his intellect and skill with lies—but the story of our relationship is all imagery and no plot. My dad is little more than a collection of impressions—Sting’s early solo work, fountain pens loaded with brown ink and the smell of leather car seats—but I admit, his pancakes were the best.

The recipe I use isn’t a hand-me-down—I was twenty before I worked it out, mostly through trial and error—but if it’s based on his more than anyone else’s. My dad indulged my sweet tooth more than was responsible, but things might have been worse if he hadn’t, and we had pancakes for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) all year round. Like mine, his batter was made with oil rather than butter, and on a good day my pancakes are as silky as his. Dad had an electric mixer, the same one he used for meringues, and while he adjusted the speed, I’d stand on a footstool and add the milk. The batter only went into the pan when the oil was smoking hot, and Dad would shuttle between the kitchen and dining room, sliding one pancake at a time onto my plate. I ate as many as I liked.

I worked out my recipe in Berlin, hard up during my year abroad. At Alexanderplatz, a woman sells crêpes from a small kiosk, working at lightning speed and folding them with a thin sheet of wood. I wanted to make pancakes like she made, and that Christmas I ate nothing else all week long. Unlike my dad, I’ve always mixed by hand, first with a fork, then with an egg whisk once the milk goes in; back then it was out of necessity, but I’ve come to think that like bread, pancakes are only fun if they take work. Mine are thin ones, not the fried-egg-sized version served in North America, and an Austrian flatmate came to prefer sugar and lemon to the local options (cinnamon, butter, apple sauce)—but I don’t bother with most of the English traditions. Adding salt or letting the batter stand makes no difference, and tossing pancakes is rarely worth it.

My niece turns ten this summer, and when we see each other—Shrove Tuesday or not—pancakes are on the table. Sometime after I came from Berlin, it became a ceremony, and last time we did it I oscillated between the hob and the table the way my dad did. I ate pancakes at Christmas the first time I spent the holidays alone, and just as eating them with my dad was only fun because it felt bad, eating them all year round—and all through Lent—has become a silly act of rebellion, an attempt to make peace with the past and get my own back at the same time; just as serving the niece my dad’s pancakes is my ambivalent salute to him.

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