German Pancake ~ Karen Smith
¾ cup milk
¾ cup flour
½ tsp salt
1 ½ T butter
½ + tsp vanilla (for the adventurous, add as much as you want!)
Mix ingredients and pour into a cast iron skillet. Place in oven at 450ºF and bake for 15 min. Turn the oven down to 350ºF and bake for 10 min.
Christmastime recalls memories of vibrant red poinsettias, the scent of sweet, green pine, and the sounds of countless Christmas CDs playing continuously from Thanksgiving until December 25th. Yet the memory that brings the most warmth to my heart is the thought of my Mom’s famous German Pancake, which she made every Christmas Eve morning. The word pancake may conjure images of a plump stack of flat, doughy circles, drenched in sticky syrup, but after one bite of my Mom’s German pancakes, the idea of eating a pancake is forever a magical experience. Just the sight of a golden cradle of hot fluffy pastry embracing the cast iron pan instantly causes the glands to salivate. While Christmas day may have been the most exciting event in terms of material gain, Christmas Eve morning marked the highlight of my year’s culinary delights.
After my Mom passed away from ovarian cancer in the fall of 2003, looking at December 24th on my calendar became a hard thought to bear. My Dad convinced me that together, we could make Christmas seem as normal as possible by creating our special Christmas Eve breakfast. I wanted to place my complete confidence in my Dad’s hopeful suggestion, but the thought of making the German pancake without my Mom seemed sacrilegious. As we whipped the ingredients in the same vessels my Mom used year after year, I began to think that Christmas was going to taste just as sweet as it always had. We placed the mixture in the oven and did the only thing we could do … wait. Those 25 minutes were some of the longest minutes of my life, and when we pulled our creation out of the oven, the seconds that followed made my heart sink. In the bottom of the cast iron pan was nothing I had ever seen before – a stout lump of white dough that looked nothing like the flaky, light pancakes my Mom had made. My Dad and I looked at each other with disgust written all over our faces. The only explanation we could provide to the great flop of our German Pancake was that it was made without the loving hands of my Mother; the mixture, void of her generous dousing of vanilla and brisk whisking strokes, lay deflated, uninspired inside the once proud cast iron pan. When following a recipe, it’s not always about using the right ingredients and following instructions to a tee, but more importantly, it is about the love and joy that is put into the dish that truly makes it come to life.
Similarly, for Eduardo Machado, in his memoir Tastes Like Cuba, as he transitions from the lavish culinary traditions from his childhood in Cuba to new gastronomical finds in America, he discovers that recreating the meals of his youth is not simply a matter of supplying a laundry list of ingredients. Although it becomes nearly impossible for his mother to acquire the same ingredients in American that she used in Cuba, it seems that any attempt at trying to transcend their feelings of exile in America come short as her mock Cuban concoctions fall flat, serving as bitter reminders to the reality of their circumstances. After his mother’s efforts to make a typical Cuban meal of fried steaks, Machado reveals an honest, childlike reflection of the results: “Frying the steaks was disastrous […] The rice was not high quality. The split peas were not black beans. But worst of all, the steaks were tough and the chunky bready was greasy. She had tried her best, but it was not close enough, and for her that was the same thing as a failure,” (107). Machado later goes on to realize that he “had not missed Cuba [but] missed the food for sure,” (120). From these realizations, the audience can gather that Machado holds on to the remnants of his Cuban nationality through his relationship with Cuban food. His connection with the meals of his youth in Cuba is one made from memories of comfort and satisfaction. His mother’s inability to reproduce these same feelings through the familiar recipes she used in Cuba suggest that in order to create a meal, it requires more than just a batch of ingredients; through love and a homey environment, a meal’s true flavors bubble to the surface.
Together, Machado and I experienced a painful reminder of the loss of something very important to us through failed attempts of creating normalcy through cuisine. With these experiences in mind, it becomes apparent how one attaches national and family identity to food; a family recipe is an extension of this identity, a bit of recorded history that holds the hope of a continued growth. However, a recipe, no matter how many times it is made, can never be perfectly replicated. A recipe, while it supplies a list of the same ingredients and directions for the cook time after time, does not contain the details of who made the dish, the inherent traits and idiosyncrasies of the recipe’s originator, or he description of the environment in which it was made. Examining the creation of a recipe, or the recreation of a favorite meal, shows how great is the influence of what goes into a meal besides the physical ingredients, and how the outcome of a meal can influence the spirits of those who partake in its communion. For Machado, in his never-ending longing to recapture his Cuban youth, and for myself, trying to conjure the familiar tastes of Christmases past, we come to realize that the memories of past culinary experiences are intrinsic – the focus should not be to recreate them to a precise memory, but to enjoy their newfound taste in their own present surroundings.
Machado, Eduardo. Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile’s Hunger for Home. New York: Gotham Books, 2007.