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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?)


Ella Fantry said...

Inspired to continue in the same vein .. there is perhaps still a little lady in Chinatown with a pushcart, who serves up the most delicate pan-cakes straight off the griddle.

ML Awanohara said...

@Ella: LOL. Maybe we can map out a Pancake Trail across the land, showing everyone where you can go to eat perfect (as in freshly produced, using locally sourced ingredients) pancakes? A kind of offshoot of the Slow Food movement.

Seriously, food is one of the big adjustments that this society will need to make if it wants to achieve the status of an "old" country (e.g., England and Japan), not just decline.

Funny thing is, the ingredients so to speak are already there--just look at Polly's Pancakes, going strong for decades with the kinds of principles that should be upheld all over America, not just in New York and San Francisco. But maybe Polly's is the exception that proves the rule? One of the few places left with backbone. The rest have caved (or gone under) to the forces of big business/mass production--as recounted by Food, Inc., Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Super Size Me, and so on and so forth.

Which brings me to (one of) your blogs: Malls of Arizona. I just now read the description, and it has me LOLing again:
An evolving epistolary on life in Arizona--a place that does not merely reside on a margin but embodies the very idea of margin. Or margarine .. which is how we get to the malls.

Are you open to followers? I'm already looking forward to seeing the film!

Kym Hamer said...

What a great post ML - many memories come flooding back for me but one in particular stands out:

One of the cuisines I miss most living in the UK is Thai food. There's lots of 'Thai' around and I enjoy it...but what I'm actually referring to are those delicate combinations of flavour that make my palette really sing (or zing! if you like) with the subtle deliciousness of a truly wonderful dish.

Anyway, I started commuting to Holborn (in central London) last December and in trying to find a dinner rendezous point for an Aussie friend and I somewhere close to the office, I stumbled across Thai Dream in a dimly-lit back street off Theobalds Road. Amaaaaazing food - a chilli plum cod dish to die for and the most delicately flavoured dumplings I have ever tasted. The decor's not classy at all - a mix of royal blue vinyl chairs, burgundy drapes and pale yellow tablecloths topped with the obligatory pale-pink-carnation-in-a-vase - but it's just like everywhere that I remembered having the very best Thai food back in Oz.

We are actually moving offices at the end of October (to South London so there'll be Chiswick High Street to explore!). I'm prompted to make sure I get another sneaky Thai Dream visit in before we go...

ML Awanohara said...

@Kym: Fascinating! To think you would be reminded of your native Australia in a Thai restaurant in London--and not just any old one but a fairly grotty one that knows how to make chilli plum sauce for fish (was the cod steamed?) and delicate dumplings. We Westerners sometimes forget that Oz is in Asia and Asian immigrants have had a huge impact on the country's cuisine.

What's more, I understand there is a chef in Sydney, David Thompson, who has been a pioneer in introducing authentic Thai food (not the fusion version) to Australia and Britain. He has written THE definitive book on Thai cooking, which I see is triple and quadruple recommended by Chowhound types not just for its recipes but also for its exploration of Thailand's history and culture.

On this grounds alone, I'm nominating Thompson for one of my Pachydermophile Prizes (Feed Time category).

So what's the story behind Thai Dream: who runs it, and what inspired them to start it up in the UK, where the majority of restaurants can get away with serving up a bastardized version of Thai food? Perhaps you can find out before you move offices?

p.s. Just now studying a couple of Thompson's recipes. Even his puddings sound amazing: eg, custard apples simmered in coconut cream. The only problem is, where do I find custard apples, not to mention pandanus leaves ... So, can you readily find real Thai ingredients in Australian supermarkets?

Jeffrey said...

Nice post.

I haven't been an expat for over a decade now having returned to Seattle in 1998 and we don't even get "home" that often to see the Japanese side of the family. So we often crave the most pedestrian food like what can be had at an izakaya.

Seattle, contrary to what one might assume, doesn't really have great Japanese food primarily because it doesn't have a large ex-pat community to serve (lots of nisei and sansei, but it's not really the same thing).

We have Japanese at home lots, but given schedules, is pretty uninspired except on the weekends.

Therefore, I find myself sustaining the soul in the oddest of manners - bad Japanese pop music via the Internet while at work. I found this station from Fukuchiyama (ya, I'd never heard of it before either) that plays the aural equivalent of comfort food - Southern All Stars, Spitz, Puffy, Oda Kazumasa and then a whole lotta people I don't recognize.

ML Awanohara said...

@Jeffrey: I know exactly what you mean. Nisei and sansei are not the same as Japanese expats. In one of my jobs some years back, we did a conference with Asian Americans. Being an East Coast person, I'd never really met that crowd before (most were from California). I was in shock for some time afterwards: they were so different from the Japanese I had known in Japan. Perhaps I shouldn't have been shocked, but I was.

In that sense I'm lucky to be in the East Village of NYC, which has a pretty large expat community and reflecting that, quite a few decent Japanese restaurants (including some izakaya), as well as a grocery, a couple of bakeries, a teahouse, shops, etc. (The New York Times occasionally writes about this neighborhood and the kinds of trendy young Japanese it attracts.)

That said, it's of course not the same as actually being in Japan: too many Americans about!

Which is why I'm always happy to discover a place like Polly's. It's all American but somehow reminds me of Japan ... in some ways even more than some of my haunts in so-called Little Tokyo, I guess because of its traditionalist aspect.

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. You didn't include the link for the radio station you listen to.

Jeffrey said...

We lived in NYC back in the early '90s for three years. NYC has great Japanese restaurants and "back in the day" there was a killer shabu-shabu place in the East Village call Shabu-tatsu. Is it still there?

"That said, it's of course not the same as actually being in Japan: too many Americans about!"

I know how your feel as I get the same feeling every time I go "home" again - too many gaijin about! My wife's family is from a suburb of Nagoya. I was shocked at running into other hakujin at the Apita in Ichinomiya, which is a twenty minute train ride outside of Nagoya.

As I've already outed myself, so I might as well pass it on.

I pretty sure it is an automated station as the DJs for a typical Japanese station all talk waaaay too much and this one just plays the same semi-annoying commercials over-and-over with only the tenki-youhou read live.

ML Awanohara said...

@Jeffrey: Yes, Shabu-tatsu is still here! It's part of the mini-Japanese empire architected by a Japanese man, Bon Yagi, and his company, T.I.C. Group. He started with Hasaki in 1984 and since has added not only Shabu-tatsu but a bunch of others: Sobaya, Rai Rai Ken, tea house Cha-an, Curry-ya, and (just last year) Robata-ya ... I think he might also own Otafuku (the tiny okonomiyaki place)? All are within a two-block radius on E 9th and E 10th Sts.

I met him once: such a lovely gentleman! You'd never guess he's a savvy restaurateur.

And agreed that there are too many gaijin swarming about not only the East Village but Japan itself. That said, I'm never quite sure if someone is a gaijin or not these days since the young people are all dying their hair to be my color (strawberry blondish). I often do a double take!

p.s. Playing your FM station now--for some reason it's brought back vivid memories of being stuck in traffic jams in Kanagawa-ken ... Those were the days?!

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