When I was in college, I lived with my grandparents–in a light blue house on Dorothy Lane where at the same time every morning, breakfast was served on the same lap trays in the same chairs while we watched the same news programs in the living room. When we finished our breakfast, the dishes were washed while my grandma hummed the same tunes, the dog was taken out to the same patch of grass, my grandpa retreated to his office where he’d begin his ham radio routine at the same time every morning, and my grandma would start a load of wash–often with just a few dish towels and whatever she could convince me to add to it–simply to continue the pattern of sameness. While their younger years delivered thrilling adventures–living abroad, mission trips to far off lands, writing and speaking and entertaining–in the last chapters of their life, they clung to the comfort of daily routines in a small country town where “going out” meant one of three things–Hutch’s Grocery Store, Weatherwax Drugs or Streeters Hardware. Instead of a downtown, the hub of Spring Arbor, Michigan was (and still is) its college campus and the Free Methodist Church in which its founding principles were rooted.
For three years, the steady rhythm of that small time life and the dependable routines of my grandparents’ home grounded my lost yet searching heart, although at the time I complained about the boredom and joked that the only excitement that town offered was when someone hit a deer on M-60. By that standard, Spring Arbor was practically Burning Man. What I realize now and wish I could have appreciated then though, is that my grandparents’ seemingly small town predictable life was anything but monotonous. In fact, it was magic, laden with intentional rituals that put jeweled crowns on otherwise ordinary events–the way my grandma used the good dishes every day and served ketchup in tiny bowls with miniature spoons, the way they huddled together before the sun rose to read scriptures and pray for their grandchildren–out loud, by name, the way they planned an afternoon drive to the orchard to pick up September apples as if it was a much anticipated annual road trip (it was), the way my grandma ironed her slacks and wore leather pumps to head to a coney island dinner at the A & W. They took their little ordinary life in a small house in a small town, and they made it grand by playing the hand they had been dealt with such creative thought and intentions of meaningful connection. The moral of the story: They won the game.
I could write pages of the cherished rituals they passed down to me, but today I write one because I pulled it out of my memory box this week and made it a part of our own home–my great grandpa’s buttermilk pancakes for dinner. We had them once a week for dinner when I lived with my grandparents, and even though I couldn’t grasp then the meaning of all their rituals, when I came home from classes and saw a buttermilk carton and electric frying pan on the counter, I knew what was coming was special. And while there’s so much I’ve sadly forgotten about the three years I lived with my beloved grandparents, I remember everything about buttermilk pancake nights because they were different from the rest–they were special.
Because my grandma wanted us to eat them hot and so she could be with us while we ate, she poured the pancakes right at the table, setting up her electric frying pan at one end so could she could cook and eat and talk and serve us without leaving the table to flip a pancake or pour another on the griddle. Moms spend their whole lives trying to figure out how they can do three tasks at once. I guess you finally figure it out when you become a grandma.
I brought the griddle to the table this week, telling my kids that my grandma did the same. I knew just how the batter should be bubbling before I flipped a pancake because my grandma showed me how. I threw out the first pancake even though it looked perfectly fine because my grandma always threw hers out, claiming the first ones are “horrid.” And, just like my grandma did, I ate my first pancakes with butter and syrup but saved the best one for last–a spoonful of brown sugar piled on top, hollowed out to make room for a puddle of cream. “Luscious,” she called that last one.
It’s been a long time since we’ve eaten breakfast for dinner, but as I told my family the story of how I used to do it every week with my grandparents, I remembered perhaps the greatest power of all in ritual…the ability to bring to life what you miss–even just for a moment–and the connection to something bigger.
With no further ado, buttermilk pancakes from the recipe of L.D. Gates from Mesick, Michigan. He made them in a cast iron pan on an old wood burning kitchen stove. Mine will never taste as good.
I like to keep the batter more buttermilky than flourish (two adjectives I just made up, thank you) because I like thinner pancakes, but have at it with making them just how you like. You can, of course, serve them for breakfast which is what my dad does on the back deck of his cabin in Northern Michigan (all hail to the ritual gods!).
These measurements are in mL because the family recipe we all share now comes from a handout my uncle made for his chemistry students, using buttermilk pancakes to teach a lesson about the chemical reaction that happens with the baking soda. It’s four simple ingredients
Heat griddle to 350-400°. Put 1.5 rounded tsp of baking soda in a large mixing bowl. Add 100 mL water and stir.
Measure 500 mL buttermilk and pour into the baking soda mixture while stirring gently. At this point, my uncle would have you write what reaction is evident, but you can skip that part. Add flour slowly, with gentle mixing, until the consistency is to your liking (thick enough to hold shape on the frying pan). Don’t worry if there are lumps–just make sure the flour is all moistened.
Spoon/pour the mixture onto hot griddle to form your pancakes. Peek underneath and flip once they are golden brown (batter should be nice and bubbled on top). Remove when second side is nicely browned. Eat immediately with butter and maple syrup. Spin your own ritual.
More on ritual (and a fun full moon rituals printable for this weekend!) in this week’s newsletter. You can sign up here.