I have a confession. I’ve never made pancakes. The truth is, I’m not one for recipes or lots of rules or even following detailed instructions. My own cooking is more like inventing. My oven resembles a glorified “Easy Bake” oven and when I boil water on my stove, every window in my apartment fogs up. I’m also uncoordinated. The mere thought of having to flip batter over with a spatula on a hot griddle makes my palms clammy. There are a number of things in my life that I am very good at. There are also a large number of seemingly simple things that have caused me to land in the emergency room. Does it make me less of a woman, if flipping pancakes makes me nervous? My Great, Great, Great Grandmother, Virinda Longmire, might answer yes.
Virinda and her husband, James are quite famous in my family tree. They met and married in Indiana during the mid 1800’s. Together, they led a wagon train to the foot of Mt Rainer, in Washington. James built the first wagon road around Mt. Rainer and together they established the Longmire Hot Springs Hotel and Resort. More than a 150 years later, I’m told that people traveled many miles on foot, horseback, and wagon for her excellent pancakes. I’m guessing this was the only restaurant for miles around. Her picture captures her, sturdy and efficient in her calico apron. She looks like she needs a manicure and volumizing conditioner. She looks like she’s had eleven children.
James and their sons built the hotel. Virinda did the cooking. A tourist website advertises a “settler’s re-enactment” every August where a group of locals dress up like James and Virinda and act out what life must have been like all those years ago. Nearby, her gravestone stands as sturdy as her picture. It reads, “Charitable Neighbor, Devout Christian, Loving Mother, Capable Wife.”
I can’t help but be offended by the word “capable.” Is that really what all her work adds up to? Excellent pancakes, eleven children, living out of a wagon with the very real risk of wild animals, inclement weather and thieves, establishing a town where there once was only wilderness and she gets the word, ‘capable’ carved in stone? James has eleven lines describing his accomplishments. He was a naturalist, humanitarian, explorer, and peacekeeper. He was a lieutenant in the war with the Indians and held a seat in the state legislature. I understand that they lived in a different time. When I Google her name, I only find that she stood beside James, made great pancakes and named a nearby valley, “Paradise” because she thought the wild flowers were heavenly. Virinda’s son, Leonard Longmire, remembers, “When she first saw the valley with its thick carpet of wild flowers everywhere, Mother said, ‘this must be paradise.’”
I had always hoped that I descended from graceful, gorgeous women. Is that wrong? Honestly, I will never be responsible for exploring an as yet uncharted piece of earth from the business end of a team of oxen but whenever I am faced with risk or change or danger and on the days I fear that I am not capable enough, I begin to wonder if my life might be different if I actually learned the art of perfect pancakes. Maybe it’s less about pancakes and more about allowing my first attempt at anything to be less than I had hoped, knowing full well, the bowl is full of batter and there is still so much I have yet to learn.
“The first pancake is always spoiled, ruined, a failure, thrown out, no good.” As an oldest child, I have always hated this phrase. It’s hard not to take that kind of thing seriously. Am I considered the “first pancake” in this scenario? Why must the first one be terrible? And why has it been translated into every language and posted on ‘Google’ for the whole wide world to read about? I am finding that there’s a lot written about pancakes. People are very serious about their breakfast. For example, Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras is also known as Pancake Tuesday. Apparently, it’s been this way for thousands of years because; pancakes are the most efficient way of using up all the fat in the house before the beginning of Lent. Pancake Tuesday sounds delicious and highly logical. Although, the lesser-known Pancake Tuesday tradition is to give the first pancake to the woman in the room with the most questionable virtues. Why are men conveniently excluded from this?
While searching, I also found a book online, written by a psychologist, Dr.Tori Wilcox, titled “The First Pancake, A Recipe for Delectable Life Transitions”. She seemed to put a syrupy sweet spin on the fact that everyone fails and recovering from failure is as simple as learning to toss out your failed first pancake. Maybe I can console myself with the fact that the phrase is popular because it’s a natural phenomenon. The fact that it has been translated into almost every language tells me that I’m not alone. I am also not a pancake. I have eaten them, but I’ve never actually made a pancake.
Pancakes are a staple in almost every culture. The variations are seen in differences in thickness and toppings, some fruity, some savory, some chocolate. All of them are made of the same basic ingredients: Flour, egg, milk, baking soda, salt, and sometimes vanilla. From these simple ingredients, the possibilities are endless. The Longmire Hot Spring and Resort was sold to Mt. Rainer National Park around the turn of the century. Some of the original cabins are still standing today. The original hotel was rebuilt after a fire quite some time ago but the breakfast menu advertises the ‘Longmire Pancake Stack’. I was curious. Is this really Virinda’s recipe? And what is all the fuss over her pancakes really about? The current hotel does not use a campfire to cook them. They have a real kitchen and an extensive staff. But, just like Virinda, there are hungry guests to feed every morning. Pancakes are pancakes.
Even Virinda’s pancakes were made of the same basic ingredients. A man by the name of Aurthur David Martinson wrote his dissertation on James and Virinda Longmire while he was studying for his PhD in history at Washington State University in 1961. The title: “The Influence of the Longmire Family Upon the Early History of Mount Rainier National Park”. Martinson notes, “A typical pack horse carried a weighty load. It might have fifty pounds of flour on one side and balanced with various other commodities on the other. On top, such things as pots and pans were tied. Numerous chickens were also transported. In addition, the Longmire’s would often drive along two milk cows and two calves for meat.” (p. 30) Transporting this load would take three or four days. According to Maude Longmire, one of Virinda’s granddaughters, “When Virinda first started the enterprise of hotel cooking, she used Dutch ovens and frying pans over a campfire. In 1888, James secured for his wife a stove that took four-foot lengths of wood. In the early days of the hotel, she charged twenty-five cents a meal, served family style. For breakfast one enjoyed ham and eggs, fried potatoes, and stacks of pancakes with syrup, jam and jelly.” (p. 37-38)
Longmire Hot Springs was advertised as a medical spring and was visited by people seeking the curative powers of the mineral springs as well as adventurers wanting to make it to the top of Mount Rainier and into the history books. Martinson writes, “For many years, the Longmire Hotel, well established and without competition in its location, never suffered from lack of business. Amenable to public wants and tastes, the Longmire’s adopted the policy of trying always to serve good food at a reasonable price.” (p. 44) Virinda and I actually do have one thing in common. We have both worked in hotels. We have both made our living by making others feel at home, comfortable, welcome.
The more I learn about Virinda, the more I admire her. She was a trailblazer. I imagine she’d be impressed with my silicon spatula and it’s technological ingenuity. It makes me feel more proficient in the kitchen. Actually it’s a safety precaution. In case I accidentally leave my silicon spatula in the oven, it will take an awful lot of heat before it catches fire, sets off alarms, and burns my tiny apartment to the ground. That said, I don’t think she would’ve approved of my flimsy non- stick frying pan. This was an excuse to go shopping. I came home with a heavy cast iron griddle. I can’t imagine cast iron has changed much in the last 150 years except that mine came pre-seasoned. I’m sure Virinda seasoned her own cast iron pans.
Finally, it was time to make my first pancakes. I decided it was best to use my stove like a civilized person. The city of Pasadena, and my neighbors, might not appreciate my experiment in authenticity even if my ancestors were pioneers. After quite a bit of research on the subject of pancake recipes, it was clear that most people use Bisquick and water. It’s interesting to note that the very first mass marketed and manufactured food product was Aunt Jemima’s Pancake mix, in 1887, which would have been right in the middle of the Longmire Hotel’s heyday. The mix was not initially popular and did not sell well. Why would it? Flour, eggs, milk, baking soda, and vanilla were in plentiful supply, even in the unsettled parts of the nation. I figured the simplest recipe, favoring dairy products, would be the truest to Virinda’s reality. I had to go out and buy whole milk, eggs, and butter. I’m allergic to dairy. I also had to buy Lactaid. It was worth it. My first official pancake was ugly but delicious.
There are a couple tricks to making pancakes. First, don’t over mix the batter. This will thin your pancakes. Also, let the batter sit for 5 or 10 minutes before pouring onto the griddle. This lets the leavening process begin and gives the wet and dry ingredients extra time to meld. Both of these things are easier if the initial ingredients are already at room temperature. Virinda probably didn’t have this problem. An icebox in the wilderness might have been hard to come by. Actually, Virinda and I have something else in common. My apartment is so old that my pantry used to be a cold storage cellar. It’s at the lowest, darkest corner of the kitchen, with cut out holes allowing cool air from under the house to circulate through. Virinda’s was probably brand new. Mine holds cookie sheets and loaf pans that are rarely used.
Another thing to keep in mind is that cold ingredients on a hot griddle will burn before they can cook all the way through. No one likes blackened pancakes. To avoid this, make sure the griddle is hot and evenly buttered. The main reason the first pancake looks worse than the rest is that the pan is still absorbing the heat and the grease. I was told to test the heat of the pan by sprinkling water on it. If the water dances for a few seconds, your griddle is ready for the batter. Once I got started, I realized the first pancake wasn’t my biggest challenge. Keeping the same temperature for all subsequent pancakes is a balancing act. If the heat is too low, the pancakes won’t brown. Too high and they will burn. I almost burned a few pancakes, turned the burner down and a few more stayed a pale white. I’m wondering how Virinda tackled this with a campfire. I doubt she left that job for James.
Flipping pancakes turned out to be the best part. I poured the batter onto the griddle. It hissed and sputtered for a moment before settling down to brown. I waited silicon spatula in hand, for my big chance to flip a pancake while I blinked away daydreams of impending disaster. The bubbles came up after about two minutes and my lumpy, room temperature batter began to smell like a real pancake. It was time to flip. I placed my spatula carefully between the griddle and the pancake unsure of what the consistency would be. It was far more solid than I had anticipated. In one swift move, I had flipped my first pancake. I did it. What had I been so afraid of?
After several pancakes, I noticed that I was getting impatient. I was flipping the pancakes back and forth instead of waiting for the right moment. This never helped the pancake cook any faster. It only made me feel like I was getting more done. I wasn’t. The balancing act of heat and grease and timing is everything. First, waiting for the ingredients to achieve room temperature, then letting the batter start the leavening process and again, waiting for the proper time to flip when the bubbles spread evenly across the face of the pancake and it smells good enough to eat. I imagine Virinda was keenly aware of this sort of patience. Her supplies took three or four days to reach her. There was no overnight priority shipping. What would happen if she ran out of flour? I’m more of a city girl. I prefer email and instant messaging but, in this instance there is something to be said for the slow rise of a pancake and the way it makes my apartment smell like I actually know what I’m doing. Thank you Virinda, for showing me a new kind of patience and reminding me that I can be fearless in the face of fire and batter. Besides, there are far more catastrophic things to worry about in life than pancake flipping or tossing out the first one. We can always make more batter.
This is my recipe for Pancakes that would make Virinda proud.
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Whip liquids, combine dry ingredients by folding them into the batter, mixing together until almost smooth or slightly lumpy. Keep in mind that under-mixed pancakes are fluffier than over-mixed ones. Pour onto hot, evenly greased griddle. Flip when batter bubbles up across the surface of the batter. Cook until light brown. Yields about ten 4-inch pancakes or two hearty servings. Enjoy!