Pancakes. For most, the word conjures up the image of warm, fluffy, golden-brown cakes stacked high and very likely topped with a hearty pour of sticky syrup. The name evokes such a visceral reaction, in fact, that right this moment you may even have a phantom taste in your mouth—softly sweet and buttery with a maple twist at the end. Or, more likely, you’re picturing the specific pancakes of your youth, perhaps dotted with melting chocolate, a warm pop of blueberries, or the caramelized sweetness of bananas. You may even be picturing the person who made them for you. Part of the appeal of pancakes often comes through as a memory of the chef, a beloved figure toiling away to cook shapes that’ll elicit delightful giggles from a young child or someone topping your pile with sugary delights.
Whether they’re your breakfast meal of choice or not, it’s likely you’ve had a plate of pancakes at some point. And it’s almost a guarantee that you continue to see them on menus near-constantly—even if you never order them. Few foods can be considered quite as massively loved and wildly available as the pancake. Though they’ve spawned plenty of fads, they’re far from one themselves. There is a lot more legacy to soft and fluffy hotcakes than their modest appearance may suggest.
A Brief Summary of a Long History
Pancakes have a legacy longer than historians can even track, but as far as they know, it’s possible that pancake-like creations were being cooked on rocks as far back as 30,000 years ago during the Stone Age. Analysis of ancient sites has found starchy, flour-like substances that historians believe were likely mixed with water and cooked. While the result would be firmer and more closely related to hardtack or flatbread, this era may have created the first crude version of a modern pancake.
Traveling forward in history (and skipping plenty of “pancake”-loving early civilizations), it’s known that ancient Greek and Roman cities were fond of hotcakes, swapping today’s syrup for easier-to-come-by honey. In fact, the first recorded mention of pancakes was that of an ancient Greek writer, who spoke fondly of warm griddle cakes. Elizabethans had their own popular pancakes, most commonly adorned with “spices, rosewater, sherry, and apples,” according to National Geographic. Pancakes existed in the United States when it was still just a grouping of colonies and multiple versions of pancakes are found in the first official fully American cookbook, “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons.
Before baking soda became commonly available, cooks used snow to give their pancakes the desired fluffiness. And while modern recipes prefer milk, cream, or eggs to provide moisture to pancake batter, earlier recipes were just as likely to use wine or brandy if they were more readily on hand. Even though you may associate pancakes intimately with sticky maple syrup, it was not the American topping du jour until the late 1800s. Many notable pancake moments have happened since then, including the introduction of now-common Bisquick as a quick mix for morning pancakes, multiple pancake-based world records, and the founding of today’s commonplace pancake chain restaurants (which are slowly falling by the wayside in favor of trendy cafes and restaurants with more eye-catching breakfast offerings).
Across Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, Shrove Tuesday (the day directly before Ash Wednesday) is also known as “Pancake Day.” Traditionally, this was simply because it was a means for using up the last of the lard before the start of Lent. Now, with the love these countries hold for traditions and for pancakes, it’s an excuse to fill up on pancakes, and in some towns, even participate in pancake races.
A Cake by Many Names
Rather than eating pancakes, you may prefer to feast on griddlecakes, flapjacks, hotcakes, or even Johnnycakes. If you’ve ever wondered why this breakfast staple has so many names, you’re not alone. But the difference between these varied pancake monikers ultimately comes down to nothing more than dialects and regional terminology (and occasionally swapping white flour for corn). As the passion for pancakes spread across the country, several alternate names for the dish picked up traction and followed with it. But as more people have moved from place to place—and often more than once—it’s become harder and harder to decipher where exactly each pancake nickname came to be. Ultimately, when it comes down to what you’re ordering, even if you use or come across any of the offbeat aliases, you’re still getting just about the same thing, a warm plate of buttery nostalgia-cakes (in fact, I propose this be the next trendy pancake nickname). The one exception: “49er flapjacks,” large sourdough crepes much harder to come by. but equally tasty in their own way.
Pancakes Across the Globe
Unlike some classic American foods that seem to be relegated primarily to the 50 states, pancakes are a concoction that find their footing in many countries around the world. In fact, many global versions of pancakes have a vastly longer history than the traditional U.S. diner pancake. Crepes—the thin, eggy French delight made sans leavening agent—are perhaps the most popular international pancake-esque recipe and can be found in as many global restaurants as an American-style pancake. Pannenkoeken, the Dutch preference, are larger than standard pancakes (though thicker than crepes) and are commonly found, in various forms, as a cheap street food. Chinese pancakes called jianbing are often savory and made with green onion in the batter or topping. Conversely, Indonesian serabi are very sweet and generally served with a thick coconut syrup. Denmark’s aebleskivers, made using a special mold pan, are spherical, looking more like balls than flat stackable discs. In many North and South American countries, pancakes are similar to the American style, but often swap cornmeal for traditional white flour. The list goes on and on and proves pancakes and their various counterparts may just be the world’s favorite food.
Pancakes Get an Instagram Makeover
Like any great and world-renowned staple food, modern years have seen a rise in creative musings and culinarily extravagant spins on the humble pancake. On its own, (to ignore the ever-important deliciousness factor), a pancake is simple, traditional, and perhaps a bit uninspired. One can argue it’s been done countless times by thousands of restaurants and for the most part, they’ve all been doing it about the same. There’s a simple batter, there’s a hot griddle, and ultimately there’s a stack of fluffy pancakes presented to you on a head-sized plate.
To keep the pancake concept alive and thriving (and knowing the nostalgia that pancake lovers hang on to), more than a few restaurateurs have put their culinary creativity to work and concocted pancake inventions that may just blow your beloved childhood short stack out of the water. Leave it to social media and the internet to turn something as pure and familiar as pancakes into a means of garnering Instagram likes. In fact, gourmet and nearly unrecognizable quirky versions of pancakes are one of the most popular foods to document on the platform. Restaurants capitalize on the nearly universal love for the breakfast cakes, top them with bold and outrageous toppings, and suddenly they’re a booming destination merely for “Instagrammability”—the bigger and more visually appealing the plate, the better. Massive, table-swallowing Dutch baby pancakes, cakes topped with BBQ meats and mustard, and pancakes hidden beneath mountains of compotes and caramelized toppings. Sure, they may sometimes be unrecognizable as the pancakes of our youth, but for some, that just means more marketability to a younger crowd.
Portland, Oregon—home to the truly original location of The Original Pancake House (opened in 1953)— is also home to Slappy Cakes, an establishment that allows guests to make their own pancakes at their table, complete with any toppings and fillings they can imagine. You may be wondering: Why spend extra to cook pancakes at a restaurant when it could be and is easily done at home? We imagine it’s another trend that can be attributed to the desire for attractive social media content. Besides, turning pancakes into a hot trend can take them from a cheap $5 diner meal into a $15 dish millennials and foodies will gladly order (and even wait in absurd lines for).
Perhaps the most explosive pancake fad of the past decades is the souffle pancake, a Japanese invention circa 2014 of the now incredibly popular Gram Cafe and Shiawase no Pancake, both in Osaka. Using a meringue-based batter, they created pancakes that seem to defy gravity, incredibly soft and jiggly, floating an inch or several high, and proving immensely satisfying to poke and prod. In the six ensuing years, the trend has exploded to be recreated in restaurants around the world and across the United States. People will line up around the block for the chance to stare down a plate of hotcakes that look like poofy pucks, but act like Jell-O.
As for the next pancake fad to sweep the country and world, there’s no way to know what it will be, but it’s just about guaranteed that our commitment to pancakes will ensure new takes on the breakfast staple appear far into the future. Our love for hotcakes isn’t going anywhere.