by Andrew Lee Hart
Sweet or savoury, thick or thin, pancakes are much more than mere food; they conjure up the idea of sharing and family, of the traditions that all families have, and which bind us together.
On Shrove Tuesday, my mother would get back from work with flour, eggs and a lemon in her bag, once home she would put oil in the frying pan and then cook for my brother and me pancake after pancake. Whilst she cooked we would talk of how our day at school had gone, and she would talk of her day at the grocers where she was an assistant, and make us laugh with her funny stories, and we would be a small but happy family, not thinking of the season of abstinence that was to follow the next day.
I remember the sweetness of sugar and lemon in my mouth, and the pancakes, thin and slightly crisp, but soft enough so I could fold them over, and then in two mouthfuls they would be gone. And then my brother David would eat his and we would clamour for more, not worrying if our mother was getting her fair share, and she would put more mixture into the frying pan and the small kitchen would be full of the smell of hot pancake mix, and the sound of hot oil spitting and then there would be a fresh one on my plate, whilst my brother looked on waiting for his with anticipation.
Now I have a wife and two children of my own, and I enjoying making pancakes for them, and not just on Shrove Tuesday. Often once are back home from witnessing to the people of Derby and are feeling down after so many doors have been shut in our face, and I am wondering if this is how my life is going to be forever and I begin to doubt the sanity of being a Jehovahs Witness, to put such sad thoughts aside, I shout pancakes and Martha and Debbie cheer because they know this is a special occasion and Trudy even smiles and squeezes my hand.
I make the mixture in a big glass bowl which we bought when we first married; milk, and eggs are beaten together and then I add flour, but however much I whisk the mixture there are still lumps floating to the side. And Martha and Debbie then mash bananas on a plate, and when they are squished enough I stir them into the mix whilst the frying pan gets hot. Trudy gets the first one of course and then the girls and finally me. In truth they are not the best pancakes in the world; I can never get the consistency just right, and they are a little heavy, but it is a treat and the children seem happy and even Trudy enters into the spirit of things.
I wish I could ring my mother and ask her how she made such lovely pancakes, and that she would get the train over from Nottingham (less than twenty minutes to Derby) and meet her grandchildren for the first time and cook for us, those pancakes from my youth, and I would fold my one up with the lemon and sugar inside, and eat it more slowly than I used to, savouring the taste and my mother being there, part of our family.
When I am ever asked to describe the best meal I have ever had, not something that happens often, I talk about visiting my friend Jonathan in Highgate, North London. He had invited me up for a few days, I was struggling with my first proper job since leaving university and I think Jonathan was bored and wanted company, or perhaps to someone to show-off to about his high-powered job in politics.
There is this singer called P. J. Harvey playing in Camden at this pub, I have heard that she is very good. He said over the telephone, and that clinched the deal. I got the train from Derby which had been my home since graduating, and went up to London where Jonathan met me at St Pancras station. His hair was shorter and smarter than I remembered from our student days together, but otherwise he looked the same with his decent jeans, long white shirt and black velvet jacket. He shook my hand and we grabbed a bus to Highgate where he was renting a room in a large house.
We spent the time wandering around London; both of us were making a decent amount of money so could afford to visit some of the touristy places such as the Tower of London and an exhibition at the National Gallery, and he also dragged me to the House of Commons for an afternoon. Whilst we wandered we chatted of acquaintances at university and bands we had seen. Jonathan had discovered the writer Carol Shields, so I remember him telling me about her novels The Stone Diaries and Larrys Party the latter he lent me, and which I held onto for over a decade before I gave it away to a charity shop a year or two ago.
Although I enjoyed London and seeing Jonathan it was a difficult week; religion was becoming important to me, I had become friendly with a lady at the office where I worked called Trudy who was a Jehovahs Witness and who I loved very much, but Jonathan was just not religious and when I tried to talk about such things he just laughed and swiftly changed the subject. And he talked about the Labour Party, the politicians that he came across every day, such as the leader Neil Kinnock, John Smith and I am sure he mentioned Tony Blair as well, all fine people I am sure, but any interest I might have had in politics was swiftly disappearing and I did not even vote in the 1992 general election later that year or in any since then.
On Tuesday evening the night we were going to see P. J. Harvey, Jonathan told me of a café we should visit, it was near to where he lived, and he had been a couple of times before. The cafe was based in an old pub and there were two long tables going down the middle, which meant customers were seated cheek by jowl with strangers. That evening we were the first customers there, but shortly after we arrived a couple in their thirties joined us, and Jonathan chatted to them as if they were old friends.
It was a vegetarian café and smelt of cinnamon and herbs, and the waitress, who Jonathan discovered was from Israel, was friendly and a little flirty with my friend. Perhaps I was a little excluded, but I enjoyed sitting and watching as Jonathan made friends with the couple, Chris and Nicky and exchanged smiles with the tall, buxom waitress who kept sitting beside him and touching his shoulder as she made a point.
I was not sure what to order, the food seemed exotic and I struggle with choice, but then I saw on the menu, lentil dhal on top of pancakes, and I could not imagine anything tastier, so I chose that. When I tell my wife, Trudy about this meal she says, that she cannot imagine anything more disgusting, but Jonathan was more encouraging.
Sounds good Mr Hart And it was good; the spicy lentils with turmeric and garlic, just the right strength and the pancakes, soft and thick, perfect.
And the couple, Chris and Nicky looked at what I was eating and asked what it was like, and so I cut them a slice each and Jonathan too, and suddenly we were all sharing the food from our plates, and I felt part of the group. The waitress came out of the kitchen asked me whether I had liked the pancakes.
Wonderful I told her, and the others nodded in agreement.
It is the first time we have ever made them for a customer, I was so glad when you ordered them, and she gave me a smile.
They were delicious, I told her, they have made me very happy indeed.
Much later that evening we walked home after seeing P. J. Harvey, I was getting the train home the following morning and my mind was already back in Derby, at work and with Trudy. But as we walked I felt very happy, helped by a couple of pints of beer and the exhilaration of the concert which had been very good. We had been very close to the band, and Polly Harvey had such charisma and presence that the glow of her personality was affecting me. Jonathan told me how excited he was to see me and that he hoped I would come again soon and that he could come up to Derby. But none of that happened, and in fact this was the last time we saw each other, Jonathan got more involved with his job and then got a girlfriend, whilst I became a Jehovahs Witness, whose hierarchy frown upon secular friends and even family.
Although we lost touch I started to see Jonathan mentioned in the newspapers as he became a Labour M.P. and one with promise and in fact he is now part of the shadow front bench and I do wonder if he ever remembers me or my visit. P. J. Harvey too has made her mark, she sells plenty of records and has become rather respectable with articles about her in the broadsheets and interviews on Radio Four. Often, whilst we are sitting around the kitchen table I tell my children about my trip to London to see my friend who is now a famous M.P. and visiting the Tower of London, and seeing a well-known singer in a small pub in Camden and most of all I tell them about those pancakes, soft and spicy, the taste of which will stay with me for as long as I enjoy food and texture, and sharing them with three people who I never saw again, but who were part of a very special moment.
I had to get the train to Leeds University as my mum could not get the day off work to drive me and I am not sure she could have afforded the petrol because although I was getting a full student grant and was in theory costing her nothing she had spent money equipping me for my life away from home. She hugged me that morning as she set off for work.
Dont worry about anything she told me, it is an adventure and she gave me money for a taxi to Nottingham railway station. I did not see it, but I am sure that she cried as she drove off in her small car to work.
I was nervous of starting university, and I was also jealous of my brother and mum living together now, without me. I hoped that they would be thinking and talking of me that first evening once David got home from school and my mother from work even later. Perhaps they would have pancakes, or maybe even go to the chip shop and the house would smell of batter and fish and my brother would remember to put the paper in recycling. And then I worried that David would not remember to put the bins out or to do the other myriad jobs that I had been used to doing.
I was in halls of residence, near the university, it was a large modern building that could have been anywhere so faceless was it. As I staggered in with my bags and found my room I was half aware of something familiar, the smell of pancakes cooking nearby. Everywhere I could hear young voices, male and females chatting. How could they have all become friends so quickly? I felt insecure and shy as I unpacked my stuff; I had not been able to bring much, being limited to what I could carry and then after a brief lie-down on my bed to calm myself I explored.
My room was on the second floor of the building, one of twenty rooms on either side of the corridor interspersed with toilets and shower rooms. I walked past the sound of rock music and the smell of cigarettes, and there at the end of the long corridor was the kitchen where the smell of pancakes was coming from and at the cooker stood a girl with long black hair who smiled at me and there were other young people sitting around chatting, and smoking. The woman making pancakes, turned to me and to my surprise she knew my name.
How is your room? she asked, she was called Naomi and was possibly the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
It is okay, big enough I was nervous and struggled to speak.
I am making chocolate pancakes she said, would you like some?
There was a plastic bowl with a mixture and she had bought chocolate buttons and cocoa powder which she added to the mixture so that it was dark brown, with flecks of cocoa power at the top. When I tasted one, the softness of the chocolate was delicious and there was a faint taste of cinnamon. I felt that I had discovered something exotic and exciting, and my mothers pancakes paled in comparison.
Five of us sat round the table and gorged upon the pancakes, and when we had finished them, Naomi cooked us some more, filling our plates with love and food, and I felt calm and happy, as if I was somewhere that I belonged. And then a young man, who I later discovered was called Jonathan, walked into the kitchen in with a carrier bag full of beers which he passed round to everyone, and then we drank and ate until we were content, we talked until the early hours, and I forgot about my worries and my homesickness as I was embraced by this disparate group of people who by the slenderest of chances happened to be sat together in this kitchen eating pancakes and becoming a family.
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