Why Pancakes Should Be a Side Item, Not a Main Course
The sweet vs. savory breakfast debate could be resolved with a single plate
"In comedy you have to start strong and end strong. It can’t be like pancakes. All exciting at first, but at the end you’re fucking sick of ‘em.”—Mitch Hedburg
At a recent South Florida breakfast with my large extended family, our party was facing a conundrum. It was the same quandary that brunch patrons have been trying to solve ever since the first primitive farmer accidentally dropped an egg onto a rock on a hot day and heard his stomach start to growl. It’s the choice between id and superego, between the lump sum and the annuity, between being content not to eat again until dinner and feeling like shit the rest of the day. It’s the choice between sweet and savory breakfast.
My mother, who knows how to work a restaurant menu better than anyone I know, ordered French toast for our section of the table to share. It was a weird French toast, coated in Corn Flakes. Everyone had been intrigued by it, but not enough so to risk the filling, hearty safety of our breakfast burritos and crab cake Benedicts.
No way was I ordering it myself. Sweet breakfast rarely wins with me. All humanity can be arranged on a spectrum of sweet to salty cravings, and last week I caught myself absentmindedly salting a granola bar at my desk, just to give you a sense of where I’m at. My mom is the same way. I’ve seen her salt dinner rolls.
Even for a real salthead like me, though, the choice can get dicey. I’m forever lingering over a description of blueberry pancakes and syrup (syyyruppp) only to do the more prudent, forward-thinking thing and order the eggs. It’s always a gamble.
And that morning, I would have lost the bet, if it weren’t for the quick menu MacGyvering of my mom. Most of the food was sad, but the French toast was the highlight: crispy, interesting, and not overly sweet. Had it fallen to just one of us to order the sweet thing, there’s a good chance none of us would have, leaving us to make do with our mediocre omelets.
But what if we didn’t have to? What if we could have all the cheese-slathered savories we wanted and still feel like we hadn’t missed out? It can happen, and this is how we do it: Stop making pancakes an entrée. Pancakes should be smaller, and pancakes should be sides.
Picture your go-to savory breakfast plate. Mine is a cheddar cheese, sautéed onion, tomato, and sausage omelet with hash browns. Next to it is a single silver dollar pancake, about as wide as your hand, accompanied by a dipping sauce-sized offering of butter and syrup. That’s all you really need, and it blows a biscuit or a fruit salad out of the water.
Pancakes are a Mount Rushmore breakfast food. They’ve been around for thousands of years in countless cultural permutations, offering vital nourishment for people, from serfs in the middle ages to American cowboys, who didn’t have much else. A stack of plain buttermilk pancakes is still the most popular thing on the menu at IHOP, which serves around 700 million of them per year. It would be foolish to downplay their contribution to breakfast thus far, or to get rid of them altogether. But pancakes’ headliner days should be done.
Why? First, we’ve moved past them. We have so many more evolved breakfast options. Our culture is amazing at breakfast. So amazing, in fact, that both the sweet and savory iterations have a deep bench of irresistible players, and more are being added all the time. Waffles have been made into tacos. You can get Hollandaise, or something like it, at Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s no reason we should still be relying on a disc of flour that a careful seven-year-old can prepare successfully as a tentpole of our most important meal.
And second, entirely sweet breakfasts shouldn’t be OK. I hate to turn half of you against me when we’re already so deeply polarized as a nation, but you know it’s true. At no other time of day is having dessert as your meal acceptable. Wouldn’t it be awful, for example, if every time you went out to dinner, you found yourself agonizing over the decision between a baked half chicken with seasonal vegetables, and a whole chocolate cake? That’s exactly what we’re doing to ourselves at breakfast.
Look, you’re an adult. I’m not here to tell you how to live your life. You can keep waffles, crepes, and cornflake French toast. The equipment costs for mandated tiny waffle sides would be admittedly steep. But we could more optimally use pancakes as a dessert-like complement to a satisfying, savory main dish. Pancakes have served the breakfast-going public for years. We owe them a lot, and what better reward than a comfortable retirement in the “Sides” section? Free your minds, breakfast lovers. And free the pancake, too.