When I was growing up, my family celebrated Fat Tuesday by attending an all-you-can-eat pancake dinner in the basement of a nearby Episcopal church.
“They’re practically Catholic,” my father would say every year, as if he had to justify setting foot in another domination’s house of worship and reassure us that their pancakes tasted more or less like our pancakes.
Like any nominally Catholic family, we observed abstinence from meat on Fridays during the Lenten season that followed, but like any red-blooded Americans, we had no taste for asceticism. While the rest of my family filled up on McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, I preferred pancakes. And not only did I eat pancakes, but I ate them while wearing a cape.
“Why do you wear that stupid cape whenever you eat pancakes?” my sister would ask.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder, why did I stop?
Our house was sinking. Not in a metaphorical sense, but in the real, Edmund Fitzgerald sense. Our house had been sinking for years and it now listed at such an angle that I would amuse myself by setting a tennis ball on the living room floor and watching it roll the length of the house through the dining room and into the kitchen, where it would deflect off the clutter of chair legs and thud against the wall.
We sold our house and moved into an apartment the summer before I started high school. I’d be lying if I said that the transition was easy. I’d also be lying if I said that I didn’t turn to pancakes for comfort.
From wherever I was the apartment—one that I would charitably describe as “snug”—I would hear batter licking the sides of the mixing bowl, the subtle cascade of chocolate chips into the batter, the distinct hiss of the griddle.
My mother made pancakes so big that they had to be folded over to fit on the plate. Was I gluttonous? Yes. Unapologetically so? Absolutely.
We were both committed to ending the relationship our way. He insisted on one last meal together, and I insisted that I didn’t have time, that I didn’t see the point, that fine, okay, I’d meet him in an hour at a hole in the wall called Reggie’s. It was the kind of place that made you wonder if there might actually be a Reggie manning the grill, a place for regulars, forgiving lighting, for unfussy cheeseburgers.
He ate something that wasn’t what he thought he ordered and I ate a pancake—or, to be more precise, I pushed a pancake around the plate to make it look as though I was eating, the stab and screech of fork and knife on the plate cutting off any would-be conversation. Even though our relationship had long since settled into the romantic equivalent of a Sunday morning hangover, our breakup had left me ravaged and reeling, a one-two punch in the gut. I couldn’t eat a bite.
When the waitress brought the check, I dug in my pocket for change and pulled out his house key instead.
“Just think of it as a prison sentence.”
This was my father’s attempt to frame my stay at a residential eating disorder treatment facility with his swing-and-a-miss brand of humor.
“I hope it’s not a life sentence,” I joked.
Despite the breeziness of my response, his prison analogy struck a nerve that I tried to override with my own line of reasoning. Yes, it was true that I was relinquishing my freedom, but not freedom as he understood it. I was freeing myself from the futility of trying to measure up to an impossible ideal, my inner hypercritic asking, “Do you really need more pancakes?” and me, with my mouth full, unable to respond. With my eating disorder clouding my judgement and dictating my decisions, I hadn’t truly been free in years. I wasn’t a criminal being placed in captivity; rather, I was escaping self-imprisonment.
Through sheer force of will, I managed to maintain this mindset until I entered the treatment facility the next day. Once I was inside the building, however, my father’s words were impossible to ignore.
My world shrunk to the size of a prison—an intimate space containing a seemingly infinite amount of time. Here my flippant response to my father assumed greater weight, a life sentence measured both temporally and spatially, by my body size. Now I really did need more pancakes.
The easiest way to question a woman’s worth is to accuse her of being emotional and over time, I had elevated pancakes from food to abject emotion: shame. I knew that if I ate one pancake, I would eat another, and if I ate another, then I might as well continue until I collapsed into physical grotesquerie and sticky-fingered disgrace. It was all or nothing.
I hadn’t eaten a pancake in years.
“I want you to eat a pancake.”
My therapist was convinced that exposure therapy would help me find a place where pancakes resided in the sweet spot between agony and ecstasy, restraint and excess, thereby disproving my one-to-one food-to-feelings ratio. While I lacked his confidence, I told him that I’d give it a shot.
Objectively, it was just a pancake, an alchemy of powder and milk and eggs capable of soaking up a prodigious amount of maple syrup. But for me, it was a food that not only had I mythologized into a monster, but a monster whose execution required split-second timing and a finessed flip. Disaster lurked in the yawning gap between the recipe and its fulfillment.
To my relief, my muscle memory kicked in and I plated my pancake with ease, the act of which conjured Proustian memories that allowed me, if only for a brief time, to forget my fear. This time lasted only as long as it took for me to eat the pancake.
Robyn Schindeldecker is a Minneapolis-born, Internet-bred writer who is pursuing her MFA at Hamline University. When she’s not making a mess in the wordsmith’s forge, she can be found making a mess eating pancakes.