Posted on May 13th, 2012
We had an electric griddle when I was a kid. It had a cast iron top with bright orange trim, and you plugged it into the wall. It was hefty and unwieldy, made in the days before cheap plastic manufacturing overtook all but the most expensive kitchen tools. It lived stored sideways in the back pantry, near the cast iron frying pans and the seldom-used china set.
It was probably my grandmother who bought it. “Spend good money on an appliance,” she would say, “and it will last.” And she was right. Like the other kitchen items she purchased — the giant freezer, the beefy microwave, the sturdy bread maker — it was still in use well into my high school years. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she always seemed to find a way to buy the things that were really important.
The griddle wasn’t something we used every day, but in my childhood memories it looms large. The school music concerts, my sixth grade graduation, the closing day of summer recreation camp — all the moments designed to accept the flashbulbs of a thousand scrapbook-obsessed parents– are memorable mostly for the itchy dresses I didn’t want to wear. But I can still recall, with fondness and clarity, the satisfying sizzle of pancake batter hitting the top of that griddle.
My grandmother — we called her Gram — grew up in Brooklyn in the years following the great depression, the second youngest of six children. Her parents were immigrants and, though life was far from easy, she had none of the cautious anxiety you usually see in people who have lived through hardship.
She was warm and funny, with a serious sense of adventure that drew her to the kinds of activities that strike fear in normal people– hot air balloon rides, a cruise among the glaciers in Alaska, performances with an improvisational theater group. Quick with a smile and a laugh, she was just as happy to share the small moments in life, patiently teaching me songs on our old Wurlitzer organ, hitting the local yard sales…and making pancakes.
In the early, early morning, while everyone was still snug in bed, Gram would place the griddle on the counter and plug it in to preheat. I’d come downstairs, my feet bouncing on the icy floor, to find my two brothers battling over a bowl of pancake batter. Sometimes, if I got up really early, she’d let me help — holding my tiny hand in hers to demonstrate how to crack the eggs cleanly, without any shells.
One by one we would take turns releasing drops of smooth batter onto the hot surface, me standing precariously on a dining room chair to reach the kitchen counter. To a five-year-old, the transformation from gooey liquid to fluffy pancake is like a science experiment or, perhaps, a bit of magic. No matter how many pancakes we made, I never got tired of it.
Gram wisely left this part to us kids, never guiding our hands or planting our minds with seeds of worry about doing it the “wrong” way. We’d use a heaping ladleful to make giant pancake expanses. We’d dig out the cookie cutters and make christmas-tree shaped pancakes. We’d challenge each other to make the smallest single pancake, displaying our nearly microscopic entries proudly on white plastic plates. These are probably things that all kids do, but my grandmother would laugh and smile as if it was the first time she had seen it.
Oftentimes she’d sit with us afterwards, watching cartoons, as we ate our butter and syrup laden breakfasts. Eventually, my brothers would head out for shifts at their summer jobs, or off to ride scooters with the older neighborhood kids. I’d spend the rest of the day overturning rocks in our yard in search of beetles and salamanders, running back occasionally to show my grandmother what I’d found. She was always happy to see it.
I’m not sure what happened to that old electric griddle. My grandmother’s gone now, too, and I find myself thinking a lot lately about these memories, and how fortunate we were. It’s rare to find people who are able to give unconditional love and rarer still to find ones who can strike the right balance between nurturing and trust.
She set up the griddle, and stayed close by, but let us make the pancakes.