by Judith Sharlin
My husband David called them “Best Pancakes.” On Sunday mornings, we had my creation—whole grain pancakes with sliced bananas. Our son Hillel enjoyed them with chocolate chips. At times, he had them with both chocolate chips and sliced bananas.
I had handwritten the recipe on an index card that became soiled from the flour and eggs used in the pancake batter ingredients. Then, later, I typed it out because David urged me to make it more permanent and include it in my “next cookbook,” he said. I taped the recipe to an index card.
In 2011, I typed it out again and emailed it to Hillel. He wanted to make them for his girlfriend, Emma. A year later, he asked for the recipe again. This was after he spent six months in an inpatient drug rehabilitation center and then an outpatient program. I felt hopeful when he asked for the recipe and that he was cooking. I sent it with this email: “Dear Hillel, it was good speaking with you yesterday. Here is my pancake recipe. I hope it brings back wonderful memories of all those Sunday mornings we spent together. Love, Mama.” It was the only recipe he ever asked me for.
“Best Pancakes” turned out to be the one dish David learned to make too. While I practiced with a Masters swim team on Sunday mornings, he made the pancakes and had them ready when I returned. The three of us ate them together sitting around our white kitchen island.
When I went to the stove to make a few more pancakes, Hillel pleaded, “Please make mine undercooked with chocolate chips.” He liked them half-cooked inside—I never understood why. After years of use, the griddle top on my stove was well-seasoned, so I just needed a little bit of oil to smear over it and then cook the pancakes. On they went—little brown circles heating up. When the bubbles formed on one side, it was time to flip them over. The bananas caramelized and the chocolate melted as they cooked, making them so delicious—soft, brown and super sweet.
I call these memories remnants, love remnants. The definition of remnant: a small remaining part of something when the main part has broken into pieces. My family is the main part that broke into pieces. David died fourteen years ago; Hillel died eight years ago. The remnants of our broken family are the memories, what I am left with now. The word comes from the French remanant, which means “to remain.” It is befitting. The love remnants remain—and pull at my heart—like rip currents pulling a swimmer out to sea.
Sometimes the remnant memories reassemble, temporarily, to form my family’s voices. They echo. I hear Hillel’s voice, “Mama, can I go and play golf now?” And David’s gentle warnings when I run out on an errand, rush to work, or participate in an athletic event, “J’dith, please take it easy and be careful.” Sometimes it is in the simplest of mundane acts I perform. I take the laundry out of the dryer and the sheets are clean and warm. I hear the remnants. My son’s voice, his presence.
Hillel, you are next to me, grabbing the sheets and hugging them tightly to your body, your nostrils gulping in the fresh-laundered smells. You are smiling.
Other times, the remnants are sparked by things I see. Some days, they are just gentle signs. A teenager I see in the street wearing a Boston red sox baseball cap backwards. Passing the shelves at Whole Foods, stacked with the little red and white boxes of chocolate milk—the brand Hillel loved. Sometimes I can ignore the things I see—like the Massachusetts car sticker still plastered on the window of the navy-blue car that Hillel and I bought together a year after David died. The car I continue to drive today, everyday remnants. Some days the remnants feel as light as a summer rain shower. Other days, they scream at me, demanding to be heard and seen—like a cresting ocean wave slapping me down into the salty depths.
My recipe for “Best Pancakes” is a gentle remnant of my broken family and, all these years later, I feel the need to make it again. Not simply because they are so good—yes, there’s a reason David named them “Best Pancakes.” But also, it’s the only recipe both David and Hillel asked me for—a family favorite they recreated. When I make the pancakes, I imagine my husband and son are beside me cooking them too—I feel close to them.
I take out two large, clear containers of flour from the bottom shelf of one tall cabinet in my Florida kitchen. One container for organic, unbleached white flour and one for organic whole wheat flour. The containers are nondescript, bought to replace the shiny silver ones that I left behind when I moved from Newton. I get out the remaining dry ingredients—baking powder, salt, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.
I’m aware of my inner voices, memories of making pancakes with my young son “Shhhh,” I whisper to Hillel. “The grated nutmeg is the secret ingredient. Please don’t share the recipe with anyone.”
David tells Hillel, “Mama is going to publish this later, that’s why you shouldn’t share it yet.”
I pull out a large white ceramic mixing bowl. It is chipped and the outer rim is blue. I purchased these nested ceramic mixing bowls in 2005. Each bowl fits inside one another as they get smaller and smaller. Each has a different colored rim—blue, pink, yellow and lavender. They fit snugly together as one—a family, whole and unbroken.
Some weekends when Hillel was young, we shopped together at a nearby mall in Newton. The kitchenware store gave me a professional discount because I was a professor of food science. Hillel beamed when the salesperson took my discount card and asked me about the classes I taught at Simmons College. As he grew up, he was proud of my professional accomplishments and of David’s. He exaggerated our talents and successes. When he was young, we thought his embellishments were charming. As he grew older, we realized this was a warning sign—this inability to tell fact from fiction. He wasn’t fully aware that he was blending both.
I combine the dry ingredients, grate the fresh nutmeg, and set this bowl aside. I take out three eggs and separate the whites from the egg yolks. (Another secret to the recipe!). When you whip up the egg whites separately, they add volume and lightness to the pancakes. I use a copper bowl that I got in France in my twenties when I spent a year at an art school. When egg whites are whisked in a copper bowl, some copper particles, called ions, migrate from the bowl into the egg whites. The copper ions form a complex with one of the proteins in eggs, conalbumin. The result is a conalbumin-copper complex that is more stable than the conalbumin alone. The egg whites whipped in the copper bowl are less likely to denature, or unfold.
I pour two cups of nonfat milk into another of the nested bowls. Next, I measure out one-quarter cup of canola oil and whisk it together with the milk, a bit of vanilla extract and the egg yolks. Then, I combine the wet and dry ingredients with a wooden spoon, stirring until it is completely mixed. Finally, I gently fold in the whisked, stiff egg whites. Ready to cook the pancakes.
Outside, there are no rip currents in the ocean. Today, my love remnants will not pull me out to sea. In recreating “Best Pancakes,” I am bringing back the memories of my family of three. As I heat up the brown pancake circles on my griddle pan, I feel Hillel and David close by. The pain of missing them doesn’t go away—but neither does their love. It only takes something as simple as pancakes to remind me of that.
Judith Sharlin is a writer and full-time nutrition professor at Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton, Florida. She received her MFA in creative writing from the Newport MFA at Salve Regina University, earned a PhD in nutrition from Tufts University and is a registered dietitian. She has published personal essays in Mutha, Meat for Tea and Halfway Down the Stairs. She has an essay forthcoming in the Boston Globe. She is also the author of a cookbook and nutrition guide, The Romantic Vegetarian, which won an American Health Book Award. She is working on a memoir-in-progress.
Image source: Luke Pennystan/Unsplash