I am a bonafide breakfast person. I was born a breakfast person, all through my early school years I was a breakfast person, and I am a breakfast person today. Even in my sleeping-late-because-I-partied-all-night-late-teen-and-early-twenties years I was a breakfast person. Granted, during that period I was eating breakfast at 3:00 a.m. before I passed out, but the streak remained.
I never miss breakfast.
If there is one food item that has been consistently present throughout my life— breakfast, lunch, or dinner— it has been pancakes. Of the 65,000-plus meals I have eaten over the course of my 59+ years on this planet, pancakes have played a major role in a substantial portion of that number.
Pancakes are family.
My maternal grandmother was born and raised in Nashville and moved around the country a good bit with my grandfather who was a career AT&T guy. Their final decade with the telephone company was spent on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in AT&T’s Madison Avenue offices. We called them “Muz” and “Pop.” I have no clue where the name Muz came from. My brother was the oldest grandchild, so he must have named her.
When Muz visited us in Hattiesburg during the 1960s she made pancakes every morning of every visit. She had no choice. My brother and I demanded Muz’s pancakes. There was something that separated her pancakes from the pancakes that were being prepared by my mom or my paternal grandmother. I probably didn’t know how to describe it then but there was a little more depth to the flavor profile than what I was eating in the straight-out-of-the-box mixes everyone else was preparing. Muz’s pancakes were made from scratch. Even in my preschool and kindergarten years, I could taste the difference.
As a child I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother, who was an excellent cook in her own right. One morning she asked what I would like to eat for breakfast. The answer was obvious, “pancakes,” I replied. As I was eating them, she asked how I was enjoying breakfast. With the brutal honesty of a five-year-old, I replied, “These pancakes aren’t as good as Muz’s.” That little-kid frankness makes me cringe today. But the end result was that she called Muz in New York and got her recipe. My breakfast fate was set for the rest of my life, and I have eaten nothing but excellent pancakes ever since.
We didn’t have a lot growing up. My mother raised my brother and me on a public-school art teacher’s salary. Though wealth is not only determined in dollars and cents. We never missed a meal, and I consider myself a rich man today because I never had to eat pre-mixed pancakes that came from a box on a grocery store counter.
We eat breakfast every time the family gets together. And Muz’s pancakes are always the center of the plate item at any St. John breakfast. It’s been that way for over 60 years. My children eat them, my brother’s children eat them, and now my brother’s children’s children eat them.
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. It’s up to the butter and syrup to carry the flavor. Not Muz’s.
This past weekend my wife and I were on the Mississippi Gulf Coast visiting my brother and his wife at their fish camp just off of the Bay in Pass Christian. My 87-year-old mother was with us as well. Sunday morning breakfast consisted of— you guessed it— Muz’s pancakes. My sister-in-law did the recipe justice.
It had been several months since I had eaten a batch, but and instantly took me back to my childhood. Wherever we traveled anywhere, whether it was a beach vacation, a mountain vacation, or to our fish camp, Muz batched the dry mix portion of her pancake recipe into jars— and later zip lock bags— and purchased the wet ingredients when we arrived at our destination. As I was sitting there with my brother, our wives, and mother, I thought to myself, “These are truly the world’s best pancakes. Seriously, the greatest. There’s no other recipe that even comes close.” Even in its simplest form, it’s rare that one gets to experience that degree of culinary perfection.
Twenty years ago, while thinking back on so many pancake breakfasts I had enjoyed over the years, 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, Muz did the cooking. She was living in a nursing home at that time. I brought her to my house for pancakes. This time I did the cooking. We sat with my wife and young daughter and enjoyed one of the more memorable breakfasts I will ever experience.
Life is finite. Family members pass. Recipes live on. Muz’s pancakes live on through various members of her family, but also through the tens of thousands of people who have prepared them, from one of my cookbooks, or from clipping the recipe that accompanies this newspaper column.
As my wife and I were driving my mother home after breakfast, I switched the radio to the channel that plays music from the 1940s. Like me, my mother may not remember what she ate for breakfast, but she remembers lyrics from songs of her childhood. Though on this morning, I don’t think anybody forgot what they ate for breakfast. Muz’s pancakes had been the star of the show.
Photographs and videos are nice when it comes to remembering good times and loved ones. But they are one dimensional recollections. Family recipes live on through those who continue to cook them. They are a living, multi-sensory remembrance of loved ones and good times passed.
Pancakes are love. Seriously, think about it. When have you ever eaten pancakes— outside of a restaurant— that weren’t prepared by someone who loved you, and someone you love?
Show someone you love them, today. Make them a batch of pancakes. Better still, make them a batch of Muz’s pancakes.
This week’s recipe: Muz’s Pancakes—The World’s Best