On Pancakes and Log Cabin Capitalism

A few months ago on Facebook, while making Krusteaz pancakes, just as I did this morning, I mused that in the three decades I’ve been making pancakes, I had never realized two things: they’re from Seattle (I was born there myself, so you know they have to be good) and there are actually measuring instructions on the side of the box (I’ve always eyeballed it). My dear longtime friend and fellow snarkaholic Swanson chimed in and asked that since I’m only 30, had I really been making pancakes since I was a toddler?

Seriously, who questions me?

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Alaska, like most other places in the ’80s, was all about making money. And there was some money to be made in those times. Anchorage doubled in population from 1980 to 1990, and during those ten years 100,000 new residents streamed into the city with high paying oil and state government jobs. Many of them came from more traditional oil-producing states like Oklahoma and Texas, bringing with them Christian evangelism and notions that the free market was a similarly divine creation. Longtime Alaskans who had emigrated earlier during the century (Anchorage was virtually uninhabited until the 1910s; even the local Athabaskan native tribes lived elsewhere along the shores of Cook Inlet) came to a land with much less promise of easy money, and were more apt to be black sheep types who sought Alaska more for adventure and escape rather than the cash waterfall that came with the discovery of oil. The oil workers were essentially the Alaskan version of nouveaux riche who could stomach nine months of winter as long as there was a Burger King (opened on Northern Lights Blvd in Anchorage in 1985 to much fanfare) and a nonstop to Honolulu (three times a week on a Western Airlines DC-10, and later on a Hawaiian Airlines L-1011).

Whether they were making money from the North Slope or the newly-flush state government budget, or spending it on trips to Hawai’i, strip malls in Midtown or margaritas at La Mex, somebody had to account for all that cash. The job fell to my parents, both accountants extraordinaire, and longtime Alaskans for whom, having been raised on whatever game they or the neighbors were able to hunt (and perhaps a canned whole chicken on Sundays) found Burger King exotic (to give Anchorage some credit, there had been McDonald’s since the ’60s, and a local joint called Arctic Roadrunner since the ’40s). When done crunching numbers for the radio station we co-owned or for the large real estate conglomerate, we’d spend our weekends relaxing at Big Lake, as relaxing as it was without running water or until later years a telephone.

Breakfast was a treat during those  weekend mornings, because we actually had time to fix more than a bowl of cheerios or a toasted English muffin. I’d typically wake around 7 or 8 after hearing Mom in the living room adding another log or two to the wood stove to revive the fire that had settled to embers during the night. Breakfast prep would start with pouring water out of the giant orange cooler filled with tap water brought with us from Anchorage in large semi-soft plastic jugs, and supplemented with snow collected from the yard and melted in metal pans on the wood stove if we ran low, and mixing it with the Krusteaz pancake batter in the familiar blue bag with the pull-string top. We never measured, we just knew what pancake batter was supposed to look like. We’d cook it on this ancient cast iron griddle which in a previous life had been an attachment for a cast iron wood cooking stove, although it worked just as well on our electric one. Our silverware set came with a gravy spoon with a bent bowl that was perfect for making pancakes, and I’d watch eagerly as all the bubbles would burst from the top of the cooking pancake, indicating it was time to be flipped over.

Bacon, which I seem to remember was the Bar-S brand (none of this “thick cut” or “maple cured” or “jalapeno infused” stuff showed up until later; there was only “Bacon” at the Big Lake Foodland) was simply fried in a pan and stirred occasionally with a two-pronged meat fork, which after years of use had scored the bottom of the pan like some sort of modern oil painting. After the bacon was fried and laid out on a paper towel before being served, we would pour the bacon grease into a leftover coffee can each weekend until it was full, and we’d take it down the road to my Grandpa Smitty who lived a few miles away near Big Beaver Lake (no giggling!). He had some two dozen sled dogs that he would take out mushing, and he added the leftover bacon grease to their food to keep their coats shiny.

Here I am frying bacon. You’ll notice the two pronged meat fork. Immediately behind my head is a can opener that was attached to the wall. Also behind me is the green coffee can where we would pour the bacon grease.  The microwave behind us was a very recent addition. This photo was likely taken during the first three months of the year, because I’m wearing a Fur Rendevous booster button on my overalls (Fur Rendezvous or Fur Rondy as the locals call it, is a traditional fur show and festival that takes place in Anchorage each February).

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After the bacon and pancakes were complete, the eggs were made last, which were simply scrambled, no milk, no salt and pepper, just scrambled in a pan and pushed about with a large metal spoon and heaped back into the empty bowl the eggs were scrambled in, which still had some raw egg in the bottom. Mother reasoned the hot eggs cooked the tiny amount of residue in the bottom of the bowl enough to kill any foodborne nasties (more likely the bloody marys everyone was drinking more than took care of that anyway, and Grandma used a similar excuse of booze killing germs when she dropped in the sticks of celery unwashed) and aside from that it kept the eggs moist in the event she hadn’t quite finished all the pancakes yet.

The pancakes would often have blueberries in them if they were in season (they grew wild in the bushes alongside the cabin during the summer) and we’d always manage to have too many. Sometimes they’d go in the fridge for a snack for me later, but if there were leftovers there was always at least one that would be fed to “Mr. Squirrel” (which was our name for whichever squirrel had taken up residence in the tree outside, regardless of sex). There was a broken branch near the base of the spruce tree that had left a stub about two inches deep, and was just low enough to the ground for me to reach and I would always take an extra cold pancake and poke the branch through it. It would sit on the trunk of the tree like a bullseye to be pecked at by the little Chickadee birds that didn’t migrate during the winter until the squirrel would finally venture out and begin to nibble at the edges until the soggy griddle cake gave way and would fall to the roots at the base of the tree, to be further pecked into submission by the birds or carried off by some other creature.  In later years we eventually hung a traditional bird feeder.

No recipe this week kids, as there’s really nothing special about pancake mix, plain scrambled eggs, and fried bacon, but the memory is just as strong.

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