Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Not Everything is a Pancake (PART I)

              Seated in a restaurant on a beautiful, sunny Sunday day, waiting to eat lunch, I overheard a conversation among some customers seated at the table next to ours. A group of five people were about to order and while scanning their menus, one of them said to the fellow seated across the table “… and they of course have pancakes. Well, we all know that pancakes are all the same everywhere in the world.” As a chef, I couldn’t help it but smile while thinking “My Dear Stranger, pancakes are not all the same!”
            When I hear the word “pancakes,” the first image that my mind produces it is a thick, airy, soft cake covered with maple syrup. Although knowing that this flat cake is a popular and widespread “cereal meal” – even eaten by prehistoric societies – I cannot confuse pancakes with the rest of the thin cakes that we find in almost every restaurant or country we visit. From Africa to Asia, from the Mediterranean to North Europe to America, there are so many styles of what we modernly, and too generically, call “pancakes.”

            When human beings discovered that a mixture of mashed grain and water cooked on a hot surface (stone) undeniably tasted much better than eaten as raw gruel, here is where the History of Food truly began. Any kind of mashed tuber or primitive grain moistened with a liquid could have given the birth to the very first “bread.” And that is not all. Imagine what this cooked batter represented: an edible surface to arrange food upon, to hold sauces, to prevent scalded fingers from the heat of the flame-cooked foods. This represented an alternative to grasping food with fingers. Nowadays, in many cultures, this layer of cooked batter (which I prefer to call “crêpes” and not “pancakes”) are still used in a place of pottery. These cooked discs were also proven to be conveniently portable and thus they soon sold in the markets of the earliest of villages. In addition – from honey to meat to vegetables – any number of ingredients could have been incorporated into this cooked batter.

           The variations of these flat cakes – our “Primeval Bread” – are mainly in the ingredients which lend a specific thickness and taste. But, the common denominator (as it is for crêpes) was, and still in many cases is, in the absence of a “leavening agent” (which generates fluffy gas bubbles in the bread). The development of a commercially available leaving agent occurred only in the late 18th Century. Only after baking powder became available on a large scale in the mid-19th Century, pancakes became America’s favorite along with their modern concept of “fluffiness.” If we look up European words for pancakes we find, for example, that the German word is pfankuchen; Swedish is pannkakor; Dutch is pannekoeken. The Romanian palatschinke is a thin crêpe-like variety of pancake common in Central and Eastern Europe. Names of this dish include palačinka / палачинка, palacinka, palacsinta, and palaçinka.

           The term “pancake” first appears in a cookbook in England in 1430, but this term was not in common use until only after the 1870s. Why did it take over 400 years for this name to be adopted? In 14th Century England, pancakes were called by the French name “a froise,” from the Latin “frigere,” which means “to fry” and is related to the word “crêpe” (this connection will be explained in the second part of this article). Many of these words for “pancake” are similar because they are derived from one mother word which can be tracked across several languages of Central and Southeastern Europe. The noun I am referring to is the word “placenta.”

            Ancient Romans took the secret of making bread from the ancient Greeks, which among their breads, had one known as “plakous,” meaning “flat.” The Romans further developed the recipe, and while trying to conquer the known world, they spread their bread around Europe, along with its Latin name “placinta.” This term referred to the basic shape, as did its earlier Greek predecessor. The modern anatomical use of “placenta” comes later, borrowed from the shape of this flat bread, and not the opposite.  Originally this Roman bread was made with a combination of a flour, honey, bay leaves, and cheese – which is far closer to a “cheese pastry” than a “pancake.” 

            Another type of ancient Greek “pancake” is the “tagênitai” or “têganitai” – both terms come from “tegano” – the name of a specific type of frying pan, and the term for the bread literally referred to it being cooked in this type of pan. In Italian, “tegame” is the word we use to describe a specific frying pan as well, and our related concept to ancient form of sweet “cakes” in southern Italy is a thick cake made with eggs, ricotta cheese, sugar and no flour. A savory version close to ancient “pancakes” in Southern Italy is called “farinata” from farina meaning flour. Regardless of its name, "farinata" is made instead with Garbanzo Beans (chick peas) cooked until so pasty to form a thick dough. The dough then is left to cool down, finely sliced, and deep fried.

Between the 14th Century and the 19th Century, pancakes became popular under the name of “flapjack,” etc. However, what we know today as “pancakes” were likely originally unleavened, fried batter. When the Old World discovered the New World, European people encountered the Native Americans and their form of bread (which was the primary carbohydrate staple for many): maize. Just as gruel/porridge was for Medieval Europe, and rice for East Asia. All the new foods discovered in the Americas became incorporated into European schemes of food.

                                                                      ("placinta"; photo: Wikipedia )

            Along with the New World arrival of European culinary habits came many of their names for foods. And here in the New World, the Native American maize-based breads became known as “johnnycakes,” “griddlecakes,” and “hotcakes.”

Yet, they are still not known as “pancakes…”

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