Pancakes: A Nostalgic Global Hit

Happy National Pancake Day to one and all! In celebration of this lesser-known occasion, we arranged a series of short chats with a small sample of six colleagues from Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador, the United States, Germany, and Australia in order to learn about pancake-eating traditions around the globe.

One undeniable fact is that pancakes evoke powerful memories. When people hear the word “pancakes,” the first things that usually come to mind are their favorite toppings and happy memories with family and friends. People can recall exactly where they were when they ate pancakes, whether on a vacation in Paris or sitting at the dining room table in their childhood home. They can recall the joy of ordering a hot, fluffy stack of pancakes for the first time off a menu at a restaurant, or the sharp disappointment of a pancake topped with corn syrup instead of real maple syrup. In all these ways, pancakes remind people of kinship, enjoyment, and Familiarity.

Depending on where they grew up, people may or may not consider pancakes to be a special food. In North America, pancakes with maple syrup are a common breakfast option, though some people treat them like a seasonal dish to be eaten only during the fall and winter months, or with additional ingredients like pumpkin. Outside of North America, people tend to regard pancakes as more of a special treat; they may eat pancakes only while traveling or cook them with family and friends on rare occasions at home. In North America and Germany, respondents reported eating pancakes their entire childhood. While they retained memories of eating pancakes in their youth, they could not recall their first time eating pancakes. By contrast, some respondents in Latin America and Australia did not eat pancakes for the first time until they were teenagers, and thus had very specific memories of the special occasion of trying pancakes for the first time.

In fact, the “specialness” of pancakes may dictate which toppings people prefer. For those who are accustomed to eating pancakes for breakfast at home, common toppings are butter, fresh fruit, and maple syrup or honey. Nutella and chocolate are regarded as slightly more special toppings, usually reserved for big family get-togethers or for restaurants serving dessert-like crepes. Because pancakes are a less common food in parts of Latin America, it can be difficult to source the ingredients needed to make pancake batter or to flavor pancakes with more common North American toppings like maple syrup.

Regardless of geography, people tend to have strong opinions about ordering versus cooking pancakes. Those who cook pancakes tend to have very strong opinions about the pancake- making process. They can describe in great detail their preferred methods for making their ideal pancakes, whether fluffy or thin, and some people have more than one favorite recipe. One of our colleagues has family members who are so particular about the thickness of their pancakes that he makes two different pancake batters to accommodate everyone’s individual preferences.

Perhaps this ease of customization is what gives pancakes their unique power; although they may not realize it, practically everyone has their own ritual for making or eating pancakes. Some people may insist on the same toppings every time, such as real maple syrup or Nutella and strawberries. They may be particular about the size, temperature, or thickness of the pancakes. They may insist upon the pancakes being stacked. Pancakes are a unique opportunity for a group of people to come together to share the same meal, while customizing that meal to their own individual preferences. For that reason, it may be that pancakes are the most uniquely communal and the most uniquely personal food there is! No wonder, then, that they are also a food full of nostalgia for people around the globe.

In sum, people around the globe share a common interest in eating hot, fresh pancakes with family and friends. In North America and Germany, pancakes are regarded as a fairly common breakfast food that people eat for the first time in early childhood. In Latin America and Australia, pancakes are a special occasion meal that many people do not eat for the first time until they are older or traveling abroad. The rarity of pancakes in some Latin American countries can make it difficult to source ingredients and toppings that are common in grocery stores in the US, such as maple syrup. Regardless of where they are from, people tend to have strong opinions about the pancake-making process, as well as their favorite toppings.