Hot off the Griddle, Here’s the History of Pancakes

Our prehistoric ancestors just may have eaten pancakes.

Analyses of starch grains on 30,000-year-old grinding tools suggest that Stone Age cooks were making flour out of cattails and ferns—which, researchers guess, was likely mixed with water and baked on a hot, possibly greased, rock. The result may have been more akin to hardtack than the modern crepe, hotcake, or flapjack, but the idea was the same: a flat cake, made from batter and fried.

Pancake Day: The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

By the time Otzi the Iceman set off on his final hike 5,300 years ago, pancakes—or at least something pancake-like—seem to have been a common item of diet. Otzi, whose remains were discovered in a rocky gully in the Italian Alps in 1991, provided us with a wealth of information about what a denizen of the Neolithic ate. His last meals—along with red deer and ibex—featured ground einkorn wheat. The bits of charcoal he consumed along with it suggest that it was in the form of a pancake, cooked over an open fire.

Whatever the age of the primal pancake, it’s clearly an ancient form of food, as evidenced by its ubiquity in cultural traditions across the globe. The ancient Greeks and Romans ate pancakes, sweetened with honey; the Elizabethans ate them flavored with spices, rosewater, sherry, and apples. They were traditionally eaten in quantity on Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, a day of feasting and partying before the beginning of Lent.  Pancakes were a good way to use up stores of about-to-be-forbidden perishables like eggs, milk, and butter, and a yummy last hurrah before the upcoming grim period of church-mandated fast.

In the American colonies, pancakes—known as hoe cakes, johnnycakes, or flapjacks—were made with buckwheat or cornmeal. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery—thought to be the first all-American cookbook, published in 1796—has two recipes for pancakes, one for “Johny Cake, or Hoe Cake,” which calls for milk, “Indian meal,” and molasses, the other for “Indian Slapjack,” which drops the molasses, but adds four eggs.

Thomas Jefferson, who was fond of pancakes, sent a recipe home to Monticello from the President’s House in Washington, D.C., picked up from Etienne Lemaire, his French maître d’hotel (hired for his honesty and skill in making desserts). Lemaire’s “panne-quaiques” were what we would call crepes—made by pouring dollops of thin batter into a hot pan.  Modern pancakes—in Jefferson’s day known as griddlecakes—generally contain a leavening agent and are heftier and puffier.

Flat as a Pancake? Not Likely

The defining characteristic of the entire vast family of pancakes, however—from crepe to griddlecake, blini, bannock, and beyond—is flatness. “Flat as a pancake,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has been a catchphrase since at least 1611. Usually it’s applied disparagingly to flat-chested women or to featureless level terrain, such as that of Poland, the glacial plains of Canada, and the state of Kansas.

In 2003, this recurrent comparison led a trio of geographers with senses of humor—after a dullish trip across the American Midwest—to attempt to determine the relative flatnesses of pancakes and Kansas. They constructed a topographic profile of a representative pancake—bought from the local International House of Pancakes—using digital imaging processing and a confocal laser microscope, and a similar profile of Kansas, using data from the United States Geological Survey. The tongue-in-cheek results, published in the Annals of Improbable Research, showed that though pancakes are flat, Kansas is even flatter. Where, mathematically, a value of 1.000 indicates perfect tabletop flatness, Kansas scored a practically horizontal 0.9997. The pancake, in contrast, scored a relatively lumpy 0.957.

In March of this year, Kansan geographers Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell—publishing in the wholly reputable Geographical Review – also took on pancakes, pointing out defensively that, while Kansas may be flatter than a pancake, it’s not alone. In fact, there are several states that are even flatter. Their calculations showed that, of the continental states, flattest of the flat is Florida, followed by Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Delaware. (Least pancake-like: Wyoming, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Vermont.)

As all researchers hasten to point out, though, the pancake comparison simply isn’t fair. Blow a pancake up to the size of—say, Kansas—and you’ll end up with a fried expanse of ferociously rugged terrain, pock-marked with craters and canyons, studded with Everest-sized air bubbles. Compared to a Kansas-sized pancake—well, practically everything is flat.

The 16th-century measure of flatness was “flat as a flounder.”

Maybe we should go back to that.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.