A few weeks ago, I was rushing through Barnes and Noble on a mission: Get coffee before class. I could go to Starbucks, which is, actually, a little closer to where I teach. But then I wouldn’t get to visit the books.
As I strode purposefully toward the café, a title pulled me up short: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson. A quick peek at the subtitle revealed it’s an American’s memoir of opening a diner in Paris. I’d not heard of the book before. Lord knows I have plenty of my own books to get through. I definitely wasn’t planning to splurge on a memoir. But … pancakes.
Pancakes are a food item I’m most likely to think of when I think of my maternal grandma.
Throughout my childhood, she split her time between the U.S. and Greece. She had immigrated to the States to accommodate my grandfather and his work but never learned English or integrated into the culture. I figured she stayed on after my grandfather’s death for the two of her three children (and five of her eight grandchildren) who live here. I didn’t think she especially liked it here. Her favorite topic of conversation, as I can recall, was The Many and Varied Wonders of the Hellenic Republic. (Incidentally, she was not wrong.)
In actuality, both were likely true: She stayed on to be close to her family, and she appreciated certain aspects of America and Americana. For example, according to her sister, my grandma was prodigiously impressed with our breakfast cereals. It turns out she spoke as longingly of the U.S. when she was in Greece as she did of Greece when she was in the U.S. I just didn’t know it because most of the time I spent with her happened in the States.
There was, however, one thing I knew she liked in America (besides her family): International House of Pancakes. My grandma loved IHOP. “House of Pancakes” is one of the few phrases I can remember hearing her say in her heavily accented English, along with “I don’t speak English” and “I love you.”
Nevertheless, she didn’t make American pancakes at home. She made a Greek version called pitarakia, which translates to “little cakes.” (I was startled, reading David Malouf’s Ransom, to see a reference to “little cakes” that Priam and his guide cook on their journey to retrieve Hector’s body from Achilles.) These little cakes were about the size of dollar pancakes but denser, more buttery, and crispier. We sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar.
So I was surprised, while staying with my cousin in Greece last summer, when she produced a recipe for American pancakes that she attributed to our grandmother. My cousin and I were staying at our grandma’s house, on the tiny island in the Aegean she was from. It happened to be a major feast day, and my cousin was hosting a brunch after church. The star attraction was the American pancakes that, apparently, my Greek cousins enjoy. How odd, I thought, I never knew that, after so many years and so many visits.
The breakfast wasn’t an all-American fare. Most of us were drinking frappé, not American drip coffee. And we had Greek cheeses and bread. But the pancakes went the fastest and earned the most enthusiastic compliments. Deservedly so, since my cousin had to make them one at a time on what amounts to a hot plate. Also, they were fluffy and delicious.
Sitting with my cousins on my grandmother’s terrace, eating American pancakes and drinking Greek coffee, I wondered about my grandmother making little cakes in the U.S. and American pancakes in Greece. Can we only fully appreciate an experience in relation to its opposite?
At any rate, all this is why Pancakes in Paris came home with me that day at the bookstore. The word “pancakes” in the title, paired with an incongruous scene (the Eiffel Tower), provoked a flood of bittersweet memories. Gazing at the cover, I thought about eight-year-old me helping my grandma cook pitarakia at my parents’ house in New York. I thought about grown-up me eating American pancakes with my cousins on our grandmother’s terrace on a tiny Greek island. I thought about making frappé on a chilly autumn morning in Connecticut and pining for sunlit summer days in the Aegean. I thought about distance and absence and loss and wished for the impossible: to feel the exquisite ache of nostalgia without losing anything at all.
Have you ever picked a book for the nostalgic associations its title or subject matter provoked?