Indignity Vol. 1 No. 19: The philosopher's breakfast.


Indignity Vol. 1 No. 19: The philosopher's breakfast.

John Locke Pancakes

THIS RECIPE WAS on Twitter. It goes around the internet now and again: a handwritten recipe from the manuscripts of John Locke, for pancakes. John Locke's pancakes!

"'Pancakes' is one of those words that's also comedy gold; it's funny in any context," the late Richard Thompson, the greatest newspaper cartoonist of the 21st century, wrote in his annotations to Volume 1 of The Complete Cul de Sac. ("'Waffles' is only comedy silver," he added.) We are reading The Complete Cul de Sac at bedtime now, having long since read and reread all the various collections of Cul de Sac strips.

Richard Thompson was a genius at comedy, in both the natural and analytic modes. He could put ink on paper in a way that was inherently funny; he could break down language and observation to a precise insight. The particular brilliance of Cul de Sac is in the way Thompson kept his characters, children and adults alike, talking past each other. No one is really properly listening, and everyone is sure their point of view is the universal one. "Everybody's in a world of his/her own and they don't really overlap," Thompson wrote in another annotation, about his vision of family life. "They just carom off one another and roll around randomly, higgledy-piggledy."

Was John Locke trying to be funny? "Pancakes" is funny, and the idea of John Locke, the great philosopher, recording his recipe for pancakes is funny, but the real surprise and enjoyment in the recipe comes at the conclusion—the punchline?—in which Locke declares, simply and certainly, "This is the right way."

Take sweet cream 3/4 pint. Flower a quarter of a pound. Eggs 7 leave out 4 of the whites. Beat the Eggs very well. Then put in the flower, beat it a quarter of an hower. Then put in six spoonfulls of the Cream, beat it a little[.] Take new sweet butter half a pound, melt it to oyle, & take off the skum, power in all the clear by degrees, beating it all the time. Then put in the rest of yr cream, beat it well. Half a grated nutmeg & little orangeflower water. Frie it without butter. This is the right way.

Personally, from my point of view, I don't have a right way to cook pancakes. Where John Locke wrote his recipe neatly in ink, I have an index card on which I wrote down multiple columns of measurements as I tabbed from one online recipe to another to another. It's possible I did this twice and have two cards. On the infrequent occasions I decide to try to make pancakes, I glance at the different quantities in the different columns, come up with a general vibe, and try it out. This approach works OK, mostly. Not great.

The recipes or recipe fragments on the index card are all for baking-powder pancakes. I know buttermilk pancakes are better but we don't keep buttermilk around in the fridge, and if we do have buttermilk, we use it to make a bundt cake, which everyone would rather eat for breakfast than pancakes. If we don't have buttermilk and we want the bundt cake, we cheat by mixing yogurt and milk.

Obviously I would have to make the John Locke pancakes. I bought a pint of cream, but before I got around to making the pancakes, the cream went into a Halekulani Hotel coconut cake. The cake, however, had used four egg whites, so there were four egg yolks left in the fridge, exactly as Locke required. So I went out Saturday morning and bought another pint of cream.

Locke's instructions seemed simple enough. He'd done the flour by weight, as any proper 21st century scientific cook would. We decided that 15 minutes' worth of beating in a 17th century kitchen could probably be done in an electric mixer in 7 minutes on medium-low. It was easy to skim the butter and then pour the clear portion.

The only real obstacles were the final flavorings. I had no orangeflower water and no idea where to get any, so I zested a blood orange instead; I don't use enough nutmeg to keep a whole nutmeg around, and even if I did have one, half a whole nutmeg sounded like an obviously absurd amount (rough retroactive Googling suggests maybe a tablespoon?). So I tried the largest amount of nutmeg I could imagine putting in something—I think it was half a teaspoon—plus a little more.

The batter smelled good. It poured out very flat in the pan, and the pancakes ran together if I wasn't careful. The pancakes did not do that foolproof thing pancakes usually do, where the bubbles pop and form stable holes to announce it's time to flip the pancake, but most of the time I guessed correctly about when they were ready to flip.

They were still very thin when they were done, and if I wasn't careful lifting them, they would fracture on a sharp, straight line. They tasted great, especially with some maple syrup to make up for the total lack of sugar. The children liked them no more than they like pancakes in general. But my wife, who likes philosophy and doesn't care for pancakes, declared that these were, in fact, the right way.

It took so long to cook them, though, that we just retroactively declared the meal to have been brunch. So by dinnertime everyone was too hungry and in a bad mood.


IN RESPONSE TOThe Interface Is On the Inside” (Indignity Vol. 1 No. 17), Peter writes:

I am old (69) yet dream of cell phones all the time. Usually I am unable to get the numbers to come up to make a call (sometimes it's been 911) or I am wanting to take a picture but can't get to the camera. hmm...

Lee writes:

Hey ... I was getting your thing before it was renamed "Indignity" and sorta tied back to the whole Civil blockchain series of newsletters and media and all that that kinda morphed into something else. ANYway, I don't always read Indignity but today was just right. In general (you must know this) your tone is pitch perfect and just rolls along. But today was especially so. Screenshots in my dreams I've probably had but the one that recurs a lot is having a cell phone that has extra buttons or is just some odd handheld device that doesn't work right. There's others but that's one yours reminded me of. Now I have to go record my dreams since you reminded me that I haven't yet recorded last night's. Last night was ... (okay I better go) ........(and note to self ... I need to become a paying subscriber now because i'm writing you and that would suck if i didn't).

WE ENCOURAGE YOU to correspond with us! Also, like Lee says, become a paying subscriber!


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