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The Pancake According to Ephron : Nora Ephron talks to Margy Rochlin

February 27, 1992

Back in her magazine-writing days, Nora Ephron was the perfect columnist for those who believe that food details are appropriate in any context. As media critic for Esquire and other national publications, she dependably exposed the vagaries of her own profession and still found room to describe the proper way to absorb an issue of Gourmet magazine, or to confess that her childhood dream was to be locked up in a bakery overnight. And while her autobiographical novel "Heartburn" might have become famous for its snipes at philandering ex-husband Carl Bernstein, it also contained several of Ephron's recipes, written as chattily as if she were dictating them to you over her kitchen telephone.

So it makes sense that in Ephron's film-directing debut, food is a sub-text. "This Is My Life," which she wrote with her sister Delia Ephron, follows the rise of a comedienne named Dottie Ingels (played by Julie Kavner), a single working mother whose guilty conscience has her customizing pancakes for her children.

--M.R.

When people say they can't cook, what we always say about them is that they can't boil water. But what we really mean is that they can't make pancakes. For instance, you can always spot people who don't cook because they think that pancakes are made with butter. I was in a kitchen recently where someone was melting butter to make a pancake in. And there was that moment when I thought about this person, " You really do not know that you cannot fry anything in butter. . . ."

Pancakes were one of the first things I was allowed to cook. In the tradition of older sisters, I remember only me making pancakes. I don't remember being taught, although I believe that Evelyn the cook showed me what to do. I mostly remember that thing where every time you made them you'd try to make them in a different size. You'd make them silver-dollar-sized. Or you'd make little teeny, tiny ones, no bigger than a nickel. Like, 20 in one little pan and then you'd just go crazy trying to flip them over.

When I make pancakes now, I just dump oil into the pan. But in those days, I was more meticulous. I'd take a little paper towel and then dip it into a small bowl of oil and then wipe it on the pan so I'd have a very even, very thin layer of oil. When you make pancakes you have to have exactly the right amount of oil in the pan or else they come out crisper than you want them to be and a little bit greasy. Or . . . they stick to the pan.

One of the trickier aspects to making pancakes is that the pan has to be exactly the right temperature or the pancakes get too brown too quickly and don't cook in the middle. Or, if the pan isn't hot enough, they are light and look unappetizing. As you can see, for something that even an 8-year-old can make, pancakes are very complicated.

When Julie Kavner arrived in Toronto for the shooting of "This Is My Life," we gave her a welcome-to-Toronto present: a lovely Silverstone Teflon pan, a spatula, a box of Aunt Jemima's pancake mix, maple syrup and a bowl so that she could practice making pancakes in her hotel room. Julie is, of course, the Queen of Take-Out and had never met a pancake face-to-face in the way that she had to in the movie.

Originally, there were three pancake scenes in the movie. The first was the morning after her first night at the comedy club. The second was the morning after she bombed. And the third was when she was moved to the top of the order and got to be in the Saturday-night showcase. Fundamentally, these scenes were about these little ritual meals where she would report to her daughters on her progress. And, of course, at the same time she would attempt to compensate for the fact that she was moving further and further away from her children.

So what Julie's character, Dottie, is doing is making flapjacks for her kids to prove to them that she's a regular mom. Which, of course, she isn't. And which, of course, none of us are. There are no regular moms left in America. I think even Beaver Cleaver wished his mom were a regular mom. Who knows? But the main thing is that pancakes do have an amazing symbolic quality.

Cooking for your children is one of the few ways you have any lasting power over them. A couple of years ago, we took the kids to California, to my sister Delia's for Thanksgiving. And one of my children became completely miserable over the fact that Delia had made cranberry sauce. That's one of the things I don't do--I happen to like Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. And to say that he misbehaved moderately is to put it mildly. I know that there are mothers who would have been upset about it. But I just sat there thinking, "I've done it! I've hooked him for life on my Thanksgiving dinner. . . ." I think pancakes are about the same thing. If you do it right, your kids will commit forever to the pancake that you made for them.

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