Meditations on (Expired) Pancakes

Have you seen “No Impact Man”? It’s a fantastic documentary. It’s about a guy in New York City who decided that he and his family would live their lives without any net environmental impact–walking/biking everywhere, buying local, reducing trash and energy consumption–for an entire year.

Yes! Magazine and the No Impact Project collaborated on a No Impact Week this past January, inviting people to try the experiment for themselves. Was reading Yes! news this morning, and came across this beautiful blog post from No Impact Week 2011:

Meditations on Pancakes, Muddy Waters and Cardboard Boxes
by Kathy Kottaras

In my family, I’m the cook. I like this role. My husband does the fixing, the cleaning, the organizing, and I get to be the one to make the mess. And I’m a good cook—or at least, I’ve gotten better over the past few years with a lot of trial and error. But there are two things I, historically, have not been very good at making: rice and pancakes. I always burn them. The rice dilemma was solved by a birthday present from my aunt this past year—a rice cooker. Now we have rice at nearly every meal, and it’s the fluffiest, most flavorful rice I’ve ever had. All I have to do is measure the rice and water, pour it in, and press a button. Voilà. Now I can cook rice.

Pancakes are another story. For the past few years, we’ve either eaten them out, or I’ve just bought them frozen. But, here I am, just having finished reading Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man, and having chosen to take part in the experiment of No Impact Week, trying to figure out how to lessen the amount of trash I produce. I’m looking around me and I see frozen food, wrapped in plastic and cardboard boxes. It’s ridiculous.

The bag of pancake mix has been sitting in our cabinet for perhaps a year. Its expiration date is September 2010. To quote my stepdad, “They just put those things on there to make you throw it out and buy another one.” Indeed.

One of the sources of all this trash is frozen food, particularly pancakes. So as part of my quest (and I quote my husband) “to save the world one plastic bag at a time,” I decided that I was going to make pancakes. With a mix. From a paper bag, an egg, water, oil, and a little yogurt. No plastic. No paper. I decided to cook them and then freeze them (in the bag I saved from the inside of a cereal box last week) so I wouldn’t have to buy the expensive, mediocre, frozen ones. (By the way, the bag of pancake mix has been sitting in our cabinet for perhaps a year. Its expiration date is September 2010. And now, I quote my step-dad, “They just put those things on there to make you throw it out and buy another one.” Indeed.)

So, there I was at the stovetop, pouring the mix onto the cast iron skillet, when I had the realization that I was spacing out and my pancakes were burning. That’s why I’m not good at making pancakes. Unlike the other dishes I make—soups, casseroles, even burgers, where you can throw it together, put on the heat, set the timer and know that you’re done—pancakes need attention. You have to watch closely. You have to keep your eyes open for the bubbles and the browning crust. You cannot be distracted.

Otherwise, this happens: [photo of burnt pancakes]

So, I cleared all other thoughts from my mind and started to focus on the pancakes, and only the pancakes. I had slow blues—Muddy Waters and James Cotton—playing in the background, and I felt my breath slowing down. It takes a while for them to cook. The bubbling comes slowly, but when it does come, you cannot miss the opportunity to flip them. I watched the pancakes, waiting and breathing, waiting and breathing. I had the sudden realization that I was meditating on them. I was focused, and I was patient. I felt so utterly calm.

I ended up with these: [photo of perfect pancakes]

Yes. Yes, they are perfect pancakes. No cardboard box. No plastic. Made by hand. By me.

Then again, when I served them to my family, my daughter said: “I like the pancakes that have black all over them.” As it turns out, perfection is a relative concept, after all.


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