On Pancakes and Passions

Dear Reader,

In line with the phrase “The grass is greener on the other side,” have you ever thought that sins, or passions, are darker on the other side too? But of course, these statements are not contradictory at all, since the grass one is about envy, while the one on sins is about self-justification and judgment of others, all of which come from lack of humility, i.e. pride, and the devil.

These pancakes are not green with envy but with a pandan leaf infusion. I first tried this typical Malay food in Kuala Lumpur, but the pancakes on the picture were in fact made by an Indonesian lady at a Asian culture festival held in Sofia this summer.

Indulging in self-justification and judgment of others is a delightful pastime known as small-talk or gossip, and is sometimes the subject of splendid light-hearted pieces of literature that, although full of ill-disguised sanctimoniousness and a wide display of other passions, offer compelling glimpses on the social customs of their day.

Filling is made with raw palm sugar known as gula melaka, and coconut. It is barely sweet, and is delicious.

Take for instance The Luncheon, a short story by Somerset Maugham. A woman goes out to lunch with a young aspiring author whom she admires but who is in a tight financial condition. She devours one delicacy out of season after the other, while keeping saying she doesn’t eat anything for lunch. The young author wonders how he is going to pay the bill and years after finally has his revenge by seeing her overweight. Let’s see what sample of sins we’re offered – complacency, gluttony, obsequiousness, and schadenfreude.

All lovers of pancakes have their tried and tested recipe, based allegedly on the most accurate proportions. I have mine as well, taken from an old French cookbook called Tante Marie et la Veritable Cuisine Traditionnelle. In Bulgaria pancakes are mostly a dessert, and are eaten sweetened, whereas in France they might be both sweet and savoury. Austria has a tradition of serving savoury pancakes as well, filled with minced meat, and in Russia pancakes, or blini, are almost a national dish, typically enjoyed with caviar, cream and vodka. The American puffy variant with maple syrup I haven’t even tried.

Or take this, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, also by Somerset Maugham. I adore this story’s focus on food as prism through which to observe social interaction and attitudes, but nevertheless, it is one of the most obnoxious stories Maugham has ever written. Three fat women try to lose weight in a clinic in a resort, where they meet a woman with a dashing spirit and a healthy weight, whom they attract to their company to be their fourth at bridge. Her unrestricted diet and the three other women’s restricted ones, soon become the reason for mounting tension that is also fueled by personal conflicts unrelated to food.

So here is the secret recipe – 250 g of flour, 3 eggs, 1 tbsp of oil, 1 tbsp of rhum or cognac (I use Cointreau), 1/2 litre fresh milk, salt to taste.
Add milk gradually, and stir energetically.
After incorporating all milk, oil, and alcohol, you get this. Leave it on the counter, or if it is very hot, in the fridge for a couple of hours. The flour gets more tender this way. It also may, actually, will, get thicker, but you’ll dilute with water. After that you’re ready to fry. I actually bake my pancakes in a non-stick pan, and brush with butter once ready. I keep them warm in a contraption I have shown here. The French book calls for sprinkling them with sugar in lieu of the butter, and according to Russian food writer Vlad Piskunov, spreading butter prior to folding is a Russian habit derived from the fact that pancakes are the traditional Russian food for Maslenitsa – the week preceding the Easter Lent, when dairy food is prescribed. In Bulgaria we don’t associate pancakes with Lent in any way, and our typical food in the week before the Easter Lent is banitsa. Which brings me again to this – banitsa is festive, and not everyday food.
Baking the pancake on one side. See all those holes that appear immediately after the batter touches the pan! The more they are, the tender the batter is.
Pancake baked on the other side. I have tried baking these pancakes with water only and no milk. They are still pliable, but are definitely less tasty and tender.

Maugham laughs at all of them, but somehow makes the healthy-weight woman his positive character, untouched by envy and pettiness if only because her ability to eat whatever she likes has prevented the seeds of these two weeds from growing. She, however, very much like the author, suffers from complacency. So, instead of everybody working on their issues – feeling superior in one case, and using food as a substitute for emotion in the other, both groups choose to point their finger at the shortcomings of the other party, which somehow, seem to deserve harsher reprimand than their own.

That’s how a merchant’s wife fasts. Source: Click here.

In line with this, let’s take a look at another story, very much in line with the approaching Nativity Lent. It is by Russian author Stepan Grigoryevich Pisakhov (1879-1960), and is called How the Merchant’s Wife Fasted. I have been unable to find an English translation, but the Russian text is here. In Russia of the 19th century, the merchants’ wives, called kupchiha in feminine singular, were an aggregate image of crass riches, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and gluttony. Kupchihas were the then trophy wives – attractive, beautifully dressed, white-skinned, and fat. The kupchiha of this story sees it as her duty in life to eat – dairy foods during Maslenitsa, or the week preceding the Easter Lent, and substantial amounts of lent-appropriate food during the Easter Lent itself. The prevailing feeling during the Lenten period, though, is not one of restrained corporeality but rather of inconvenienced corporeality, subsisting on eating what it should, but dreaming of eating what it shouldn’t. At the end the poor kupchiha becomes delirious with frustrated desire, and the author is as happy as punch to have told such a hilarious story.

A Merchant’s Wife Has Tea, a very famous painting by Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927), a handsome painter who thought skinny women were uninspiring.

I am an avid reader, but the more I read, the more I realise that what literature most of the time offers, is not glimpses on the various points of view that seem to be Truth to people in various circumstances, but rather glimpses on various collections of passions and shortcomings that seem to distinguish one person from the other. There is one single Truth, and it is not not “out there” as the X-Files claim, but it does hurt. It has been right in front of us for about two millennia, and it is that we’re all pathetic but can mend this if we do our work before it is too late. Laughing at others before mending yourself is like saying: “My state of being pathetic is better than your state of being pathetic.” …Nice, no?

Fish filling for pancakes, recipe by Vlad Piskunov. 300 g of boiled fish fillet (I used salmon), 100 g canned smoked Baltic skipper, green onions, ground black pepper.
Apple filling for pancakes, again by Vlad Piskunov. 500 g apples, 1 tbsp sugar (I used coconut, it is much less sweet), 25 g butter, salt. Cut apples into small pieces, fry quickly in a pan together with the butter, add salt and sugar. Mix, and add cinnamon too, if you wish so.

Various groups at whose status of being pathetic societies typically love to point their finger, have taken advantage of the process of human individuation and feeling of entitlement in the Western civilisation, and have fought hard to be granted the right of being pathetic without being commented upon, like that privileged majority. This has snowballed into politically-correct phrases such as “Check Your Privilege,” which basically suggest that you are not allowed to approve or disapprove of anything without feeling guilty. What makes this new attitude to thinking so pernicious is that there is a grain of truth in it, but the essence of the truth has been modified to make thinkers dependent on bodies dispensing correct thinking according to the fashion of the day. Modified, you know, like modified starch, designed to fill in the void resulting from the lack of substance. What this “Check Your Privilege” line should suggest instead, is that you’re not allowed to approve or disapprove of anything without being humble. And remembering death, but that’s digressing into a wholly different topic.   

Source: Click here.

Finally, a story showcasing all of the above. It is The Stupid Frenchman by Anton Chekhov and is a nice little essay on gluttony, complacency, stereotypes, and bravado resulting from blending in with what others do.

The story is about a Frenchman who works as a clown in Russia, and once dines in a Russian restaurant only to observe a Russian man eating 15 blini, or pancakes, with butter, salmon, and caviar, washing it all down with vodka, as breakfast he thought was modest, fully appropriate, and in line, in both substance and quantity, with what all other people in the restaurant were having. The French clown initially thought the man was desperate and trying to commit suicide by overeating. By the closing of the story he ended up marveling at that wondrous country that bred men with such huge stomachs and insatiable appetites.

Now, I admire Chekhov, I really do, but I think this clown was made French because of the stereotypical belief that the French are somehow born with a gene for eating in moderation that spills over into a specific savoir-faire in cooking and living in general.  This myth persists to date in all those books on French chic, but I can’t feel inferior in any way to a nation that has produced a work with the subject of Rablais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. So please.

People are the same wherever you go,