This Tuesday is, for those who keep track of such things, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday – the last day of celebration before Lent. Being a Pennsylvania Dutchie, I celebrate it as Fastnacht Day. Fastnachts are potato doughnuts, which sound ho-hum but they are the best, the best, doughnuts you will ever eat. I could eat a dozen of them right this second, with butter and King table syrup. In our house, the last person out of bed that day was “the fastnacht”, a shameful thing to be. But doughnuts are good, right? To me, to be “the fastnacht” is to be an Oscar Meyer wiener.
The day is also celebrated in places like England as Pancake Day; Olney, England is home of the famous pancake race. And thinking about religious holidays and pancakes got me thinking about my father-in-law, who died recently and suddenly. Dwight and I had a…well, a strained relationship. But we always found common ground in food talk. (Mostly this was a reaching-out effort on his part, which I lately came to realize and appreciate; regrettably, I never got to tell him so.) Over the years, I taught him to make granola, which he did religiously and helped him with his bread-machine issues. Another recipe we explored together was buckwheat pancakes. He remembered that his mother would mix up a huge bowl of the batter and have it resting in the icebox; in the mornings, she would fry up the cakes. Dwight wanted to recreate them and turned to me for help.
Well, I had never had them; most Americans hadn’t really eaten them after WWII when white flour replaced it and other whole grains in pancakes and most other baked goods. Buckwheat is enjoying a renaissance because it is gluten-free (and therefore great for people with wheat allergies). Ergo, I assumed that Dwight’s mom’s pancakes were yeast-raised. I had made Russian blini and the Brittany buckwheat crepes before and figured buckwheats would be similar. A little research found that most of the old recipes called for making a starter, much like sourdough, and letting the batter ferment overnight. Newer recipes call for mixing white flour with the wheat flour and using eggs and baking soda and all kinds of other leaveners – forget that. So, I got out the buckwheat flour, sour milk, yeast, and some other stuff and mixed up a smelly sour mash. So many recipes describe buckwheat as tasting like mushrooms – this stuff definitely had that fungus-among-us thing going on. “These’ll be great!” I thought to myself that night, taking care that the batter bowl didn’t come into contact with anything edible.
The next morning, I made a test batch of pancakes for Chuck, my husband and lab rat. Success! The resulting cakes were sternly Presbyterian: heavy, grim, and gray. John Knox may not have feared any flesh, but even he wouldn’t have sermonized about the amount of maple syrup necessary for us to choke them down. I sent the recipe on to Dwight, with detailed instructions.
About a week later, he phoned, happy as a boy, to tell me about them. They tasted just like Mom’s! He ate them with sorghum syrup, the sweetener of his youth. I was pleased that he was happy, but even more delighted to hear my mother-in-law yelling in the background about how awful they were. I’m willing to bet he never got to make them again. Dwight’s mom wasn’t the only formidable missionary lady in that family.
I’m saddened by Dwight’s passing. Years ago, he took us to a Korean restaurant in Atlanta. In fluent Korean, he ordered some really nasty things for me, including an octopus dish that was so hot, it took off the top of my head. Recently, a friend and I discovered a Korean family restaurant nearby. We couldn’t read the menu, but the food was great. Among the banchan was a little dish of quivering turquoise squares floating in a fiery-looking sauce. They positively glowed. We tried it immediately. It tasted like hazelnut-quinine Jello. The server told me it was dotorimuk – jellied acorn flour. As I chased the stuff with water and more rice, I thought how much fun it would be to take Dwight to lunch here – to share the experience of blue jelly squares with him, to hear him converse with the owner in Korean, to listen to him expound on the evolution of the Korean language, and to hear him laugh as he tells another story from a life very well-lived. And now that will never be.