The Pancake According to Ephron : Nora Ephron talks to Margy Rochlin
Back in her magazine-writing days, Nora Ephron was the perfect columnist for those who believe that food details are appropriate in any context. As media critic for Esquire and other national publications, she dependably exposed the vagaries of her own profession and still found room to describe the proper way to absorb an issue of Gourmet magazine, or to confess that her childhood dream was to be locked up in a bakery overnight. And while her autobiographical novel “Heartburn” might have become famous for its snipes at philandering ex-husband Carl Bernstein, it also contained several of Ephron’s recipes, written as chattily as if she were dictating them to you over her kitchen telephone.
So it makes sense that in Ephron’s film-directing debut, food is a sub-text. “This Is My Life,” which she wrote with her sister Delia Ephron, follows the rise of a comedienne named Dottie Ingels (played by Julie Kavner), a single working mother whose guilty conscience has her customizing pancakes for her children.
When people say they can’t cook, what we always say about them is that they can’t boil water. But what we really mean is that they can’t make pancakes. For instance, you can always spot people who don’t cook because they think that pancakes are made with butter. I was in a kitchen recently where someone was melting butter to make a pancake in. And there was that moment when I thought about this person, “ You really do not know that you cannot fry anything in butter. . . .”
Pancakes were one of the first things I was allowed to cook. In the tradition of older sisters, I remember only me making pancakes. I don’t remember being taught, although I believe that Evelyn the cook showed me what to do. I mostly remember that thing where every time you made them you’d try to make them in a different size. You’d make them silver-dollar-sized. Or you’d make little teeny, tiny ones, no bigger than a nickel. Like, 20 in one little pan and then you’d just go crazy trying to flip them over.
When I make pancakes now, I just dump oil into the pan. But in those days, I was more meticulous. I’d take a little paper towel and then dip it into a small bowl of oil and then wipe it on the pan so I’d have a very even, very thin layer of oil. When you make pancakes you have to have exactly the right amount of oil in the pan or else they come out crisper than you want them to be and a little bit greasy. Or . . . they stick to the pan.
One of the trickier aspects to making pancakes is that the pan has to be exactly the right temperature or the pancakes get too brown too quickly and don’t cook in the middle. Or, if the pan isn’t hot enough, they are light and look unappetizing. As you can see, for something that even an 8-year-old can make, pancakes are very complicated.
When Julie Kavner arrived in Toronto for the shooting of “This Is My Life,” we gave her a welcome-to-Toronto present: a lovely Silverstone Teflon pan, a spatula, a box of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, maple syrup and a bowl so that she could practice making pancakes in her hotel room. Julie is, of course, the Queen of Take-Out and had never met a pancake face-to-face in the way that she had to in the movie.
Originally, there were three pancake scenes in the movie. The first was the morning after her first night at the comedy club. The second was the morning after she bombed. And the third was when she was moved to the top of the order and got to be in the Saturday-night showcase. Fundamentally, these scenes were about these little ritual meals where she would report to her daughters on her progress. And, of course, at the same time she would attempt to compensate for the fact that she was moving further and further away from her children.
So what Julie’s character, Dottie, is doing is making flapjacks for her kids to prove to them that she’s a regular mom. Which, of course, she isn’t. And which, of course, none of us are. There are no regular moms left in America. I think even Beaver Cleaver wished his mom were a regular mom. Who knows? But the main thing is that pancakes do have an amazing symbolic quality.
Cooking for your children is one of the few ways you have any lasting power over them. A couple of years ago, we took the kids to California, to my sister Delia’s for Thanksgiving. And one of my children became completely miserable over the fact that Delia had made cranberry sauce. That’s one of the things I don’t do--I happen to like Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. And to say that he misbehaved moderately is to put it mildly. I know that there are mothers who would have been upset about it. But I just sat there thinking, “I’ve done it! I’ve hooked him for life on my Thanksgiving dinner. . . .” I think pancakes are about the same thing. If you do it right, your kids will commit forever to the pancake that you made for them.
For the movie, the prop men had made prop pancakes--so if Julie hadn’t known how to do it, she could have pretended. But when it came to shooting those scenes, she had done her homework. She could make a pancake. Of course, it turned out that we couldn’t really test her pancake skills. We had to cook them on a prop stove, and we could never quite get the pan to the right temperature. They would eventually cook, but not in a real way. So what we would do is take half-cooked pancakes and put them in the pan and she would flip them over. I cannot imagine that Julie has made a pancake since. She’s not a person who would eat a pancake. Ever. I think she knows why they’re delicious. She’s just one of those people who’s always on things such as liquid diets. She eats in a healthy way.
One of the things that the actors and I discussed at some length was how we ate pancakes. Almost everyone has a different system. Some people eat them in a stack with the syrup on top, right? Or you can eat them in a stack and put butter and syrup on every layer. Or you can spread them out all over the plate. Those are the three main methods. It wasn’t a big deal. What you want an actor to do is focus on the pancakes. Because that’s what you basically do when you get a stack of pancakes. Of course, we cut the scene where Julie’s character actually eats a pancake; we really didn’t need it. But my memory is that Dottie would have one solitary tiny, little pancake that she’d eat small nibbles of. She was worried about her weight.
My favorite place to eat pancakes is at the Beverly Hills Hotel coffee shop. Their pancakes happen to be exactly the right thickness, which is about an eighth to a quarter of an inch. Also, they make fantastic bacon. I, myself, am a believer that bacon and pancakes, like Brie and apples, are one of those sublime combinations. The maple syrup is, of course, the thing that brings them together in a crescendo of happiness. The Beverly Hills Hotel has fabulous maple syrup, which is important, of course, unless you’re a child. In which case, it makes no difference at all. Then, you’re perfectly happy with things that aren’t even allowed to use the word maple on their label.
It’s different at home: Have you ever made pancakes without using a mix? It’s one of the most fascinating things because it’s very easy to make pancakes from scratch. But I’m one of those people who, if I’m out of pancake mix, feels that I can’t make pancakes. Even though all that’s really in this box of mix is flour and leavening, which you’re paying a huge premium for. You know, you have to add eggs and milk. I’m sure you’re paying five times more for the right not to have to sift your flour. Which all of us would gladly pay, of course, because we hate sifting more than anything.
For working mothers, pancakes are sort of the last pathetic way to show that you love your children. Every morning you whip into the kitchen, vowing to have something resembling a civilized breakfast. Then it ends up lasting exactly 3 1/2 minutes and consists of dumping some cereal into a bowl with some milk. So you promise yourself that when the weekend comes around you will make your kids breakfast. Now what you mean to make them is something that will be good for them. But the truth is: What is there that is good for them except possibly oatmeal? The only things that you can make them are really bad for them. Eggs, bacon, pancakes or waffles, right? So you make them pancakes even though you know that they don’t have one redeeming ingredient in them. Then . . . just as you’re making a batch of pancakes for yourself, they ask for a second helping. And by the time you’ve finished those, you’re out of pancake batter. You haven’t had any yourself. So now you have completed the ritual of a completely unselfish mother and have convinced yourself that you love your kids totally and absolutely and will do anything for them. At least one day a week.