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i flipped for a surfer

A Northern California-based writer, Pamm Higgins is a former senior editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine

EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT LIVING WITH A surfer I learned from Marla. “I should warn you,” she said soon after I began hanging out at the house our boyfriends shared, “it always reeks in here.” An environmental reporter and authority on organic pollutants, she had identified the ambient odor as the sum of unwashed dishes, sodden neoprene wetsuits dangling from shower rods, and Sex Wax, a brand of surfboard gunk that looks in its plastic wrapper like a urinal cake but smells like coconut cream pie. In time I detected other components: the black fungi creeping along the baseboards and the splash zone around the recurring Coors Light party ball.

The house squatted on the sand, facing a Newport Beach surf spot known as the 56th Street Jetty. Slapped together in about a day as a summer vacation rental, it had long been passed from one surfer friend to another (longboarders excepted), their checks mailed to an old woman in Yucca Valley who blessedly undervalued the word “Oceanfront” in the street address. My gangplank of a future husband, Steve, snared the larger of the two bedrooms after exuberantly toasting the marriage of a buddy whose bride had other notions of domestic tranquillity. The next vacancy went to Dan, of Marla and Dan. In bunking with him, she unwittingly inherited the role of resident Betty.

A Betty, she discovered, is the beach culture’s enabler. She fields predawn phone calls begging news of current surf conditions (bad answer: “dead flat”). She stifles screams when strangers shake off saltwater, like sheep dogs, in the kitchen. She provides hot nourishment to all who knock and claim a remote acquaintance with the tenant surfers or their predecessors. The better Bettys can slip into a coma yet appear fully conscious as surfers talk about their spectacular bottom turns or gawk at the tight-bunned Reef Brazil thong model assuming her usual position--back arched--on page three of the surfing glossies.

On Sundays, Dan invited his Betty to indulge his hankering for pancakes. “Can you whip some up while we get wet?” he’d say with a well-rehearsed swagger in his voice. Steve, yanking off his “Chicks Dig Me ‘Cause I Surf” T-shirt, grinned wildly at this. As they trotted across the sand and paddled out, Marla swiped the griddle with vegetable oil and dumped a can of blueberries into a batch of pre-fab mix, rendering the pale yellow a chalky gray. She’d make pancakes, all right, but they wouldn’t be pretty. “Let’s squirt sunscreen in the batter,” I suggested. We debated briefly over whether to scratch the skid marks of surf wax off the Formica tabletop. Nah. Eating commenced with the return of the housemates and ended, two hours and a tub of margarine later, when the trickle of their frogmen friends finally dried up.

I wish I could say I escaped this cult of oppression. It’s scary, really, to admit that for 10 years, on days when the surf gods grace the coast with perfectly tapered 6-foot peaks and light offshore winds, I have served luscious pancake breakfasts. With homemade syrup. Pray for me.

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BETTY’S BUTTERMILK PANCAKES WITH MARION BERRY SYRUP

Serves 4

FOR THE SYRUP:

4 cups or 1 pound fresh or frozen Marion berries

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup light brown sugar

Pinch of salt

3/4 cup light corn syrup

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

*

FOR THE PANCAKES:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

11/2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

11/2 cups buttermilk

3/4 cup whole milk

2 eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup butter, melted

3 tablespoons lemon juice

To make syrup, combine berries, water, brown sugar and salt in saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. Add corn syrup and vanilla. Strain if desired and keep warm.

To make batter, sift together flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda into large mixing bowl. Separate eggs. In second bowl, whisk together egg yolks and melted butter. Add milk and buttermilk to the egg yolk mixture and mix well. Add wet mixture to dry and stir together, then stir in lemon juice. Whip egg whites to soft peaks and gently fold into batter. Heat a griddle over medium-high heat and brush lightly with vegetable oil. Pour batter onto hot griddle about 4 tablespoons at a time and cook until surface begins to bubble. Flip pancakes and cook another minute. Serve promptly with warm Marion berry syrup.


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