Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Saturday Morning Animal Pancakes
These pancakes are for children. If you make them for yourself, there is something the matter with you.
The ingredients are:
Aunt Jemima Buttermilk Pancake mix
Kretschmer's Wheat Germ
Lowfat shredded mozzarella cheese (Yes, cheese.)
When I was growing up, an imaginative woman named Esperanza Valdez worked in our home. She was from Mexico and did not speak any English, but she learned a lot of phrases from listening to my brother and sister and me talk to one another, like "Shut up." From listening to my parents, she learned words like "darling." Her favorite music was Swan Lake and she used to crank it up while we made Saturday Morning Animal Pancakes. She would tell us, "Shut up, darling," if we got so loud she couldn't hear the music. Esperanza was a mystic who believed in the powers of cheese, and it was she who started putting mozzarella in our pancake batter. Mother swore we wouldn't eat it, but we did. We liked it. Mother is the one who added wheat germ; she was into yoga and French lessons and homemade, no-nitrate sack lunches instead of school cafeteria food when our period of Animal Pancakes was at its height. Wheat germ invaded every food we ate and we had to mooch off all our neighbors to get a decent meal.
Saturday Morning Animal Pancakes can be made on any morning of the week but are the most fun on Saturdays because that is when the neighborhood friends have spent the night and are still around for breakfast. The amount of batter, of course, depends on the number of friends. The amount of individual ingredients depends on how healthy you want to be; my sister, who now has three children of her own, uses just enough Aunt Jemima to bond the wheat germ with the cheese. Basically, just pour some Aunt Jemima in a bowl, dump in a handful of low-fat shredded mozzarella, sprinkle on some wheat germ -- about one-fourth of a cup or more if you are cooking for four children -- then pour in enough milk to mix everything into the right consistency for pancake batter. Spray some Pam or melt some butter on a hot iron skillet.
The children should line up: Animal Pancakes are a one-at-a-time operation and must be closely supervised. Have a stool or a chair ready for the children to stand on, and a big spoon. Get the skillet sizzling hot.
Most children declare beforehand that they are going to make a dog or a horse or a hippopotamus and then blob on spoonfuls of batter that meld together to resemble, of course, nothing at all. Surprisingly, these children are rarely disappointed. Others carefully deposit appropriate amounts of batter for head, body, tail, ears, even claws, creating a masterpiece, and take their pancake off to be eaten with the complaint that one paw is bigger than the other three. I myself, as a child with no artistic talent, found it easier to spoon on globs of batter and then wait to see what developed. This is still the way I create characters in prose.
When I was home last Christmas, my mother was supervising Animal Pancakes for all her grandchildren and a couple of their friends. My nephew David, who was five, made a perfect lion, then proceeded to attach a huge elongated shape to its nose. We thought the piece was ruined, until he announced with satisfaction, pointing to the appendage, "There's the lion's roar." Later, one of my nieces dumped almost the whole bowlful of batter into the center of the pan. As we watched it spread to cover the entire pan, way out to the edges, someone asked the inevitable: "What is it?" "It's a pancake animal," she said. Silly us.
Some children are less decisive and will stare at their work until it is cold on the plate, saying, "It's a bear, no it's a cat -- see, that's its tail. No, it's not its tail, it's a leash. Yeah, it's a leash. So it's a dog on a leash. Or a bear on a leash. Can you put a bear on a leash?"
The more daring are happy to put their bears on leashes, infuriating those more conscientious. I once overheard an argument break out over a particularly rotund Animal Pancake, one child declaring she had made a cloud, her older sister contending that a cloud was not an animal. "Yes it is," the younger answered flippantly. "Clouds are animals all the time." How can you argue with that?
For me, eating Animal Pancakes was always more problematic than creating them, because by the age of five I had developed an unshakable belief that everything, even inanimate objects, could "feel." I spent a lot of time at the piano, not playing it but apologizing to the individual keys in extremely high or low ranges that did not get much attention. I also had a hard time peeling bananas. With an Animal Pancake, I usually would talk gently to it for a moment, then suddenly lop its head off. This way the animal had no idea what was coming and felt no pain. I also, for obvious reasons, did not allow my animals to watch the others being eaten. My older brother, however, had a child's wicked eye for human foibles and caught on to my rituals. He sometimes would torment me while he ate his own pancakes, dismembering the creatures one limb at a time and relishing each bite . . . a leg . . . an ear . . . a piece cut from the heart. This would make me wild, and there were times when Saturday Morning Animal Pancakes had to be shut down.