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Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Polyglot Parses Her Perfectly Preposterous Passion for Polly's Pancakes (Say It 3x!)

Living for so many years as a rex-pat (repeat expatriate) in England and Japan has turned me into a somewhat freakish cultural hybrid. Though I've been back in the United States for a while, I still have moments when I'm taken aback by what a strange fusion of elements I've become. The most recent instance occurred during a stay in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The specific catalyst was a visit to Polly's Pancake Parlor (hereafter, Polly's).

Located on a maple production farm in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, Polly's started up in 1938 as a small tea room catering to the clientele at the many grand hotels in the area (including the legendary Miss D, or Bette Davis, who'd retreated to New Hampshire to escape the paparazzi). Polly and Wilfred ("Sugar Bill") Dexter were in charge. They hoped that by serving food, they could increase sales of the farm's maple products: not only maple syrup but also granulated maple sugar, maple pepper, and maple spread.

More than seventy years later, Polly's is still going strong, except its founders' vision has flipped over. Nowadays people pine more for Polly's pancakes (and their original-formula pancake mixes) than they do for the farm's pure maple products (though these, too, are delicious).

So, how did a polyglot mix like me develop such a passion for Polly's? Quite simply, because this little gem of a restaurant appeals to the three different cultural strands that run through my personality:
  1. American
  2. English/European, and
  3. Japanese/Asian.

1) American: One of my very favorite picture books from my American childhood is The Perfect Pancake. At that time, I had no idea that the book had been authored and illustrated by the Wisconsin-born librarian Virginia Kahl. She ultimately moved to the D.C. area, where she died in late 2004, leaving behind a houseful of stray cats she had rescued. It turns out, moreover, that Kahl was a fellow elephant seeker. She traveled overseas after WWII with the Army special services section to work as a librarian in Berlin and Salzburg, Austria. It may be far fetched, but I like to think that seeing those particular "elephants" was what led Kahl to produce such memorably quirky stories.

The Perfect Pancake tells of an old-fashioned village woman with a gift for turning out perfect pancakes, one after the other. She will make a pancake for anyone who asks, but no more than one — because it is perfect. Then one day a stranger comes to the village and asks for a pancake. He says it was very good, but... So the woman makes another, only to get a similar response. She makes another and another and is on the verge of collapse when the man at last declares he has had his fill: the last pancake was perfect.

Whenever I catch myself getting worn out catering to others' needs, I remember that story and how as a kid I'd promised myself never to end up like its enervated protagonist.

Visiting Polly's a few weeks ago, I had the satisfaction of being able to live out my revisionist fantasy. Polly's after all advertises that it obtains the best ingredients "in an effort to serve the lightest, fluffiest pancakes possible." But is that true? Does Polly's produce the perfect pancake? To find out, I gleefully sampled three types of the pancake batters with three types of add-ins: 1. Oatmeal buttermilk with blueberries. 2. Whole wheat with walnuts. 3. Cornmeal with coconut.

With each bite, I said to myself: "Now, this pancake is good, but not quite perfect. Let's see how the next one tastes." I was terribly pleased when, almost on cue, the waitress approached me and asked if I was ready for Round Two. "Bring it on," I said, playing the part of the man who will not be satisfied until he's had his fill, to the hilt. And then, when she was no longer in earshot: "You think you can get away with just two rounds? You'll be lucky. Heh-heh-heh..."

2) English/European: In 1986 Carlo Petrini founded the international slow food movement in Italy to protest the plan to open a McDonald's near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The movement adopted a snail symbol because the snail moves slowly and calmly eats its way through life (snails are also eaten in Petrini's part of Italy). Slow Food has since spread to the United States (particularly California), but to this day, the most avid adherents are Europeans, reflecting the movement's origins as a protest against American fast-food chains.

When living in a small English town, I became a practitioner of (lower case) slow food without knowing anything of Petrini's efforts. It was just the way people lived in that part of the world: shopping almost daily for ingredients for making their evening meals. And, as my confidence in my cooking increased, I started hosting dinner parties. To this day, going round to people's houses for a "meal," and returning the favor, remains one of my sharpest memories of life in small-town UK. I recall slaving away for days on end concocting starters, mains, and desserts (a choice of two puddings!) from recipes I'd found in cookbooks such as Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course or Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery. In case you haven't surmised, at that point in my life I was well on the road to becoming, as it were, the perfect pancake maker ...

Upon returning to the United States to live, I was genuinely dismayed to see, despite mounting evidence about the lack of nutrition and environmental waste, how many families have abandoned the tradition of home cooking in favor of convenience foods and how often they are consuming Big Macs and the like. (Take it from Rip Van Winkle: fast food has proliferated since my day.)

Imagine my joy, then, in stumbling across Polly's — and in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, an area that is not exactly known for culinary pre-eminence. Polly's was doing slow food long before anyone called it that or developed it as a creed. Among other things, this little breakfast spot can boast of decades of making:
  • pancake batters using organically grown grains, which are stone ground on the premises.
  • maple syrup, maple sugar, and maple spread using a time-consuming process and some machinery Sugar Bill invented.
  • coffee with pure fresh mountain water.
The current owners of Polly's take great pride in keeping up these traditions. They claim that their all-time favorite customer comment is from an English guest (no, not me — I'm a hybrid, remember?): "Polly's Pancake Parlor is an oasis in the American food desert." Roger Aldrich, who managed the business with his wife from 1949, must have been gratified by that remark. He saw the elephant in the traditional sense of seeing battle through service in WWII, which took him to France, England, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. The highlight of his tour was arriving at Omaha Beach two weeks after D-Day — an experience Aldrich describes, along with his resulting PTSD, in a memoir he published on his war years, available for purchase at Polly's.

3) Asia/Japan: Strange as it may seem, Polly's deeply appeals to the Japanese side of my personality. The principles governing Japanese cuisine are, of course, quite distinct from our Western traditions, placing much greater emphasis on the food's appearance (for an overview, see Donald Richie's A Taste of Japan). As Richie puts it, "in Japan the eyes are at least as large as the stomachs." But, although Polly's differs from other American pancake houses in not serving up humongous portions (the pancakes are just three inches so that you can sample several types), the arrangement of the food on plates is rather pedestrian. (Hey, it's a pancake house!)

Nevertheless, there is something about Polly's that corresponds with the food ethos that has been permanently engrained in me after years of living (and eating!) in Tokyo. Part of it has to do with the freshness of the food, and the fact that after taking your order, your waitress goes back to a special griddle area, and you can watch her mix up the batter and fry your pancakes. (You are served just three pancakes at a time, to ensure you are always eating a warm one.) From the Japanese standpoint, watching the cook in action is one way of proving how fresh the food is.

In addition, Polly's reminds me of the kind of Japanese restaurant that specializes in a single cuisine: soba/udon, ramen, tonkatsu, tempura, sushi ... Although the menu also includes eggs, quiches, sandwiches and salads, Polly's has become known for mastering the art of producing pancakes from original recipes and local ingredients that are assembled each morning. It's what we might call in Japan a pancake-ya.

I'm sure that what has inspired some of these musings is Polly's location (in the mountains) and its decor: very charming, and in keeping with the Japanese sensibility for unembellished natural materials. Polly's is housed in a vintage-era 1830s carriage shed. What a splendid (and to me, thoroughly Japanese) idea to convert a shed into a rustic breakfast place, especially as its windows afford such fabulous views, heightening the diners' awareness of nature.

Polly's busiest season is autumn, and this, too, puts me in mind of Japan. Japanese value momijigari (leaf viewing) nearly as much as ohanami (cherry blossom viewing). They watch as the koyo [colorful leaves] front moves slowly southwards from Hokkaido to the central and southern islands, in order to plan their annual leaf-viewing outings. Polly's has a fall foliage chart on its Web site, and I note it has just now posted some autumn foliage pix on its FB page. Kirei desu ne!

Question to other rex-pats: Can you relate to my sense of being an odd duck as a result of your travels? (Have any of your own "Polly's" to share?)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Honor of Those Who See the Elephant Untrammeled by Xenophobia

We long-term expats are far from perfect. We're too often the empty chair at the extended-family table; we can come across as arrogant or aloof; and some of us are boozers. But one thing you can say for us, we don't fear the "other." We're not xenophobes. Thus one of the most difficult challenges of repatriation can be witnessing an outbreak of xenophobia in one's native land, as has been happening lately in the United States.

Immigrants, Muslims, President Obama: demonizing the "other" is rapidly becoming a blood sport. Never mind that most immigrants come to see an "elephant" (as did many of our own ancestors). Or that most Muslims aren't terrorists. Or that in this age of international travel, President Obama is hardly alone in taking the "x" out xenophobe and putting it into expatriate. In a cover story for this month's Forbes, conservative thinker Dinesh D'Souza asserts that because Obama spent “his formative years — the first 17 years of his life — off the American mainland, in Hawaii, Indonesia and Pakistan, with multiple subsequent journeys to Africa," he is an "other," doesn't think like an "American," and takes actions that benefit foreigners, not natives. (This barb from a man who was born and raised in India!)

As an antidote to these poisonous times, this blog will be issuing occasional Pachrydermophile Prizes in honor of Americans who are carrying on a love affair with the elephant, or "X," in a very public way, untrammeled by xenophobia. In this post, "best of" prizes will be awarded for the following categories:
  • Wrinkles and All: For foreign-born or first-generation Americans who continue to embrace their native cultures in the face of vitriolic attacks.
  • Grass Really Is Greener: For Americans who admire certain things about the "other" and aren't afraid to broadcast that fact.
  • Feed Time: For Americans who, having fallen hard for another culture's food, try hard to get the rest of us to fall as well.
  • Why Do Elephants Paint Their Toes Yellow? For Americans who express a love of other cultures through clothing.
And the winners are . . .


Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian-American novelist, for facing down the American "elephant" since 9/11. Khakpour's debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, told of the travails of an Iranian-American family in New York post-9/11. But little did Khakpour anticipate, when she published the book in 2007, the "boiling hot summer of anti-Islamic assault" the nation has just experienced. As she wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, published on September 11, 2010:
. . . it would take almost a full decade for the proverbial 9/11 fallout to fall out, for anti-Muslim xenophobia to emerge, fully formed and fever-pitched, ostensibly over plans to build an interfaith cultural center near ground zero.
Khakpour's family fled Tehran at the advent of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, when she was only three years old. They hustled from country to country, ultimately settling in Southern California. At that time, Khakpour spoke only Farsi; now she is a professor of literature Santa Fe University of Art and Design as well as an accomplished novelist. She did not embrace Islam and has become an American citizen. That said, she still considers herself to be a Middle Easterner culturally — an identity that sometimes clashes with her values, those of a political liberal. For instance, she cannot fully accept Western stereotypes of Muslim women:
. . . I used to experience so many mixed emotions when I’d see women in full burqa in Brooklyn: alarm at the spectacle (no matter how many times I’d seen it), followed by a certain feminist irk, and finally discomfiture at our cultural kinship. And then it would all turn into one strong emotion — protective rage — when I’d see a group of teenagers laughing and pointing at them.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, a medical-doctor-turned-foreign-correspondent, for combining an anthropologist's ability to immerse herself in other cultures with a journalist's ability to report back on her discoveries. As the health and environment reporter for the International Herald Tribune, Rosenthal has embarked on a quest to find out what makes Europe greener than the United States. She likes to tell an anecdote at her own expense: about how she struggled to get used to not having a clothes dryer or air conditioner in her apartment in Rome. All's well that ends well, she says: "I now enjoy the ritual of putting laundry on the line, expect to sweat in summer, and look forward to the cool of autumn." She is also of the conviction that if she can do it, others can. The average American produces three times the amount of CO2 emissions as a person in France. So if we are serious about lowering our carbon footprints, then it's time to forgo some of our energy-wasting appliances.

Before Europe, Rosenthal reported on health-related issues for the New York Times' Beijing bureau. She recently drew on that experience when contributing a front-page story to the Times's Week in Review addressing the debate now raging in American educational communities about the importance of testing. She tells the story of how well her children adapted to their international school in Beijing, which combined a Western curriculum with an Asian emphasis on discipline and frequent testing. She says that her kids mostly didn't understand they were being tested as the "tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge." What's more, they came to "like the feedback of testing." American educators would do well to heed Rosenthal's advice and learn from the Chinese example. Notably, her observations dovetail with some new U.S. research showing that not giving tests may be bad educational practice.


Ratha Chau and Ben Daitz, two members of the New York City restaurant scene, for founding the city's first Cambodian-American sandwich shop. Daitz and Chau were buddies at Clark University in 1992. Their paths crossed again some years later when both were working in the food industry in New York City. Daitz helped Chau open Kampuchea (New York's first Cambodian restaurant, now closed) on the Lower East Side. Daitz still remembers the first time he visited that restaurant, and Chau made him a sandwich using his Cambodian mother's recipe. He took one bite and felt he'd seen the "elephant." Eventually, the two friends joined forces to open up a tiny sandwich shop in the East Village called Num Pang, showcasing traditional Cambodian ingredients — fermented fish, shrimp paste, fermented shrimp, and lots of herbs — in a style (gourmet sandwiches) they hoped would appeal to Americans.

In a recent "At Lunch With" column in the New York Times, the actor Oliver Platt dragged film critic Leah Rozen to Num Pang and proceeded to order his favorite skirt steak sandwich topped with mayonnaise flavored with fresh cilantro [coriander]. Platt's father was a diplomat specializing in Asia, so the family (which also includes food critic Adam Platt) lived in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Japan. There are many Americans who think that cilantro tastes like soap, but for Platt, cilantro is the equivalent of what the madeleine was to Proust: the flavor that recalls his time abroad more than any other. No wonder he's a Num Pang regular. At the same time, Platt appreciates how well Daitz and Chau have made their Southeast Asian food concept work in a New York City's ultra-urban environment. "You’ve got all of New York in microcosm right here," he told Rozen. ". . . I can smell the exhaust, and that’s part of the whole palate.”


Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai, a team of up-and-coming fashion designers, for melding designs from far-flung corners of the globe with an American retro aesthetic. Mayock and Buhai met when they were graduate students at Parsons School of Design (home of Project Runway). Each was elated to discover a fellow Californian who was attempting to dress an East Coast "elephant." (In Mayock's view, West Coast style is much less defined than what's found in the East.) Upon graduating from Parsons, the pair collaborated on their own label, Vena Cava, which is distinguished for its hip prints and dresses with a worldly feel — clothes that, in New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn's phrase, "hint of Americana with a dash of another country."

Vena Cava's cultural references have included Egyptian history, japonismo, Wiener Werkstatte, and African textiles. Lately, Buhai and Mayock seem to have turned to the Tuscan region of Italy or France for inspiration. (Are they suggesting we'd all like to escape?!) Their Spring 2011 collection, shown at New York Fashion Week, "felt very Mad Men by way of Capri," according to Huffington Post contributor Nicole Berrie. "An Eat, Pray, Love of the 1960s if you will." (Sounds heavenly, in my current mood ...)

Question: Long live the American pachydermophile spirit! Are there any other exemplars you think should be honored?

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Scorcher Calls for Scorched-Earth Tactics: Reflections on Summer 2010

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer, and you're not as beguiling as you used to be. Anything but. The National Weather Service recently pronounced Summer 2010 the hottest ever recorded for New York City. But we residents didn't need official stats to know it was a hot mess. Drama queens that we are, we became fond of dabbing our sweaty brows and declaring aloud: "I can't stand it any longer!"

Part of me wishes I'd been in London, where summer apparently started quite well but faltered badly. Even a nonexistent summer would have been better than the perfidious combination of heat and humidity that passed for summer in New York. Still, at least I didn't spend it in my other home-away-from-home, Japan. A friend has just now written that Tokyo had its hottest summer in 113 years, with 48 "tropical" nights.

But now that the end is in sight — Labor Day, YES!!! — I'm switching over to a practical state of mind. Time to think up some scorched-earth tactics for dealing with this kind of scorcher in future (as scorchers are predicted to become the norm). Drawing on my years of adapting to other countries' climates, I'd like to offer offer three suggestions for beating off the next heat wave:

1) Beat a hasty retreat to the mountains (so much healthier these days than the seashore). I have just now tested this idea by spending the final week of Summer 2010 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It's hot up here, too, but at least you can plunge into the nearest mountain stream, river, or lake for instant relief, or run into a forest for shade. Plus the psychological benefits of gazing into crystal-clear waters are enormous after a summer that has been dominated by the devastating news of the oil spill in the Gulf. And fellow elephant seekers, please take note: New England offers the challenge of trying to spot yet another ungainly but majestic animal: the North American moose (Alces alces). We've had the good fortune of seeing three since our arrival — much to the delight of our two canines ...

2) Dance in a circle to the beat of taiko drums. Many Americans are familiar with the Mexican "Day of the Dead." Well, the Japanese have a version, too. It's called Obon and takes place in the dead of summer (mid-August), when even the living are half-dead because of the onslaught of what the Japanese call mushi-atsui conditions (if "mushi" isn't an onomatopoeia, I don't know what is). As the climate of the U.S. East Coast resembles that of Honshu Island, I propose we start up our own Obon celebrations. Being Americans, perhaps we can skip the part about our ancestors coming back to life and think of it simply as "The Day of the Living Dead." The focus could be on the Bon Odori: the custom of heading to a local park, garden, shrine, or temple, wearing yukata (summer kimono), and dancing around a yagura stage to the rhythm of taiko drums. Even if you don't join in the circle, just hearing the drumbeat can be revitalizing, getting one's blood flowing again. If you're lucky, it will keep your brain alive until summer finally ends...

3) Try beating other bloggers in the race to upload photos showing how much you are suffering, in the certain knowledge it will make them happy (misery adores company). For me, one of the greatest comforts of the past summer lay in reading other expats' blogs and seeing that the grass wasn't any greener (on the contrary, it was browner) elsewhere in the world. Here are three examples:

SUMMER IN SHANGHAI: Blogger Kristin Bair O'Keeffe entertained us with stories of how the Shanghainese handled a summer where temperatures soared as high as 40C (104F), a record. According to her report, men tend to rub their bellies while saying how hot it is, while women employ a variety of methods to make sure the sun never touches their skin, from parasols to sun sleeves and capes.

SUMMER IN MOSCOW: Jennifer Eremeeva uploaded this view from her Moscow apartment as evidence that the sufferings of Moscow residents at the hands of Russia's record heat wave had not been exaggerated. Carbon monoxide levels rose to at least six times the maximum acceptable level, as hundreds of wildfires raged across the country, some very near the capital.

SUMMER IN DOHA: On July 14, when Doha recorded 50.4C (122.7F), its highest temperature in four decades, expat Sybil Knox decided it was time to try baking chocolate chip cookies in a tray on the dashboard of her car. Hey, if life gives you blazing desert sun, try some cooking experiments ... Her blog post was picked up by the Qatari Daily Gulf Times.

Question: How did you survive the Summer 2010 — got any good stories to share, or heat-beating advice to impart?
Note to expat bloggers: Do you have a photo of summer 2010 in your neck of the woods to contribute to the above collection? Please e-mail me at