Monday, May 11, 2009
BOX ELDERS AND PANCAKES
It has been a typical busy Monday here along the riverbank. Mostly sunny, but windy, which makes it feel a lot colder out than its current high of 63 degrees. Pretty, but not a particularly comfortable May day. Which is okay since I had work to complete at the desk and haven’t been able to spend much time outside anyway. For the last few minutes, though, I’ve been sitting on the stone steps which lead down to the water, watching a great blue heron across from me stalking though the shallows along the island’s bank. Three times so far the big bird has speared into the still murky water…and three times it has come up empty-beaked. Even this feathered fisherman has his off days. Whenever the wind gusts, it loosens scads of last autumn’s tannish-gold box elder samaras, which helicopter obliquely down into the big pool in front of the cottage. When the sunlight pours through their translucent membrane as they flutter and fall, they look for all the world like a hatch of mayflies dancing over a northcountry stream. This seed “rain” is, of course, is why there are countless box elders seedlings coming up all over the place along the stream’s banks. Box elders prefer a moist habitat, are fast growing, and thus make a good bank-stabilizing riparian species. Box elders are members of the maple family. In former days, where sugar maples were scarce, box elders were sometimes tapped and the extracted sap boiled down into syrup—though it took a lot more sap and evaporation work to turn the watery juice into a gallon of sweet, thick syrup. Probably tasted great on pancakes, though. Speaking of which…pancakes, not box elder syrup…I’ve spent decades and thousands of miles rattling around the great northwoods on countless fishing, camping, and get-away-from-it-all trips. A great deal of that time has been employed exploring the most remote corners of the Lake Superior country I could find. This is the land of the flapjack, or pancake, that camp kitchen staple of those legendary men whose brute labor felled the vast white pine forests with their double-bitted axes and crosscut saws. You might say I’ve become a connoisseur of pancakes, with the waistline to prove it. You’d also be surprised at how different these saucer-sized rounds of fried batter can taste from one jackpine café to the next. Some are good, most are merely passable, some are awful, and a rare few are simply ambrosial—light, fluffy, melt-in-your mouth delicious. I eventually managed to acquire a recipe which comes the closest yet to approximating the latter in my own kitchen—lacking only the sharp, pine-laden air, the rattle of a tent canvas, and the gurgle of a nearby brook trout stream where the tag alders wave over a tannin-stained riffle and the splash of a rising fish can suddenly distract and cause you to dribble warm maple syrup down your chin. In point of fact, such a pancake recipe is probably not safe in the hands of any admitted pancake aficionado unless he also possesses a preternaturally strong will, which I most decidedly lack. Given this necessary shortcoming, I’ve outsmarted my predilection for yielding to temptation by striking a sort of dietary compromise: I'll try and eat healthy and in moderation as much as possible, and in return, I get to dismiss my conscience from duty for certain days of the year—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Independence Day, and maybe one or two others…plus my birthday. Yesterday was my birthday. I awoke (a gift in itself!), banished my conscience until the following dawn…and fixed a lumberjack-sized platter of golden pancakes on the griddle for breakfast. And I savored every syrup-dripping, butter-soaked, calorie-laden forkful! Sin without guilt…as good a birthday gift as one can give or receive!