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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Muz’s Pancakes

September 23, 2020

A wise person once said, “The past is in your head. The future is in your hands.” If that’s the case, I’ve been spending a lot of time living in my head over the last several days as we have moved my mother into a new apartment. The new apartment is smaller which means a lot of the boxes that have been in storage rooms, attics, and drawers weren’t going to make the short trek to the new digs. The past has been ever-present.

As a kid, I spent a lot of spare time in my childhood home— and in the homes of both of my grandparents— rummaging through drawers and spaces looking at old family photos. Until this past weekend, I thought I had already seen most of the photos of kinfolk that existed in our family. Not even close.

During this most recent move, I looked in a large box at my mother’s apartment that was slated for disposal and found dozens of family photos that would have been lost for good. That fortuitous incident cemented a mission for me over the next several days as I meticulously combed through every box looking for photographs of people I have known and loved through the years, and people I never knew, though people who meant something to those I have known and loved.

I get a kick out of seeing photographs of my grandparents in their early years. The people I knew were already my age, or older, when I came to know them. I am often guilty of putting the past into the context of my personal existence and not in the proper time frame. They, too, were once young and carefree, or that’s the case for one of my grandmothers from the photos I’ve seen.

For the first 15 years of my life I knew my grandmothers as masters of the kitchen. They were both excellent cooks. As is the case with almost every southern chef and restaurateur, each of my grandmothers were inspirations to me as my career developed in the early years. Actually, even though they are both long passed, they are still inspirations to me, today.

My paternal grandmother (we called her Mam-Maw) hosted, cooked, and served elaborate, formal meals in her dining room. To this day, her leg of lamb is the gold standard for any lamb dish I have ever eaten anywhere in the world. My maternal grandmother (we called her Muz, don’t ask me, I didn’t name her) was more of a baker. I don’t remember any traditional cakes or pies that came from her kitchen, but she used to prepare a brownie-like dessert she called “fudge cake.” And she made the world’s best pancakes. Period. End of discussion.

Some cooks are more comfortable cooking specific items such as seafood; others excel at on a certain piece of equipment— a barbeque grill or cast-iron skillet. Some cooks pride themselves on elaborate dinners; some are more comfortable with small, intimate lunches. For Muz, breakfast was her domain; the early morning kitchen was her kingdom, we were her subjects, a spatula was her scepter, and pancakes were the currency.

She was born and raised in Nashville and I have always assumed that is where her recipe was developed. Tennessee may be the pancake capital of the country so that would make sense.

When dining at my grandmother’s home, no breakfast was complete without her pancakes. The supporting cast of breakfast items might change with each meal— sausage one morning, bacon the next, grits, or no grits— but there were always pancakes.

I am not sure what makes her pancake recipe so much better than others, but it is better, much better. It might be the amount of baking soda, or it could be the baking powder, possibly a combination of the two with the addition of buttermilk. Most pancakes are dull, flavorless and too bread-like. Not Muz’s. I consider myself blessed to have grown up in a home where out-of-the-box pancakes of the just-add-water variety were never served.

Whenever the family traveled, she packed her pancake mix into Zip-Loc baggies and prepared them on site wherever we might be. Her pancakes were the constant in an ever-changing family structure.

I would bet three paychecks that Muz cooked more pancakes than any other homemaker of her era. Years ago, as I was thinking back on so many shared breakfasts, it occurred to me that no one had ever cooked pancakes for Muz. All of my life, every time pancakes were served when she was around, it was Muz that did the cooking. She was living in an assisted living home at that time. I invited her to my house for pancakes. This time I did the cooking. We sat with my wife and daughter and enjoyed one of the more memorable breakfasts I will ever have.

There are many options for those who want to leave a legacy to their family. Photos are nice. Though it seems that recipes, or a particular food item, is a legacy of the utmost significance. Like money, it can be passed down to future generations, but unlike cash, the opportunities for creating lasting memories, are limitless. Sharing a meal with one’s family makes life richer. Muz made life richer for us all.

Pancakes are love. I seriously believe that. Think about it. Has anyone ever cooked pancakes for you— outside of a restaurant— who didn’t love you? Have you ever been served pancakes by someone you didn’t love?

Show someone you love them today. Make a batch of pancakes. Breakfast or supper, it doesn’t matter. Be like Muz.

This week’s recipe: Muz’s Pancakes: The World’s Best

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