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Summer Menu: The Pancake Woman

July 20, 2011

As part of D.C. Eats: Summer of Food,we’ve invited foodies and chefs from around the city to guest blog about their favorite food-focused work of art in The Phillips Collection. Nevin Martell is a freelance food writer based in the District. Read more posts in the Summer Menu series here

Rembrandt Van Rijn, The Pancake Woman, state III, 1635. Etching on paper, 4 1/2 x 3 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Robert Haft, 1982.

I wanted to snack on popsicles and Pop-Tarts growing up, but carob bars and carrot sticks ruled at my house. My mother was an anti-sugar crusader of the highest order, so sweet treats were severely limited.  Saturday mornings were different though, because my laissez-faire father was in charge. That meant health food was out and American comfort classics were in. It was always a coin toss between pancakes and waffles, because those were the only two dishes my father could make that my sister and I both liked. But no matter if it was heads or tails, Dad always allowed us to pour on as much maple syrup as we wanted. This wasn’t the artificially flavored Aunt Jemima junk either; this was small batch, locally made stuff. Most importantly:  it was pure sugar.

Looking at Rembrandt’s The Pancake Woman, I can’t help but be reminded of those heady glucose overloads. The busy, bustling black and white sketch deftly conveys the excitement I felt when I feasted on the golden discs. And I can identify with the peeved looking youngster at the bottom of the frame holding his just-griddled prize away from the dog, since I would have fought off a pack of rabid canines for the pleasure of a pancake breakfast.

I still whip up stacks of flapjacks for myself on lazy weekend mornings. Sometimes I get creative by tossing some plump blueberries or juicy strawberry slices into the batter, but mostly I keep things plain and simple. That way the amber pools of maple syrup steal the show and shock my system like I’m still a kid.

-Nevin Martell, food writer


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