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:
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.
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..."
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.
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.
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.
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?)