Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, imbibed mercury in pursuit of eternal life. I tried pancakes. I don’t particularly like pancakes, but the idea of securing some measure of permanence in this transitory world appeals to me. The quest for a lasting legacy is as old as time — it’s why we preserve all of our wittiest witticisms by posting them to social media. Alas, they are inevitably drowned out by the sheer tonnage of other hastily typed jokes.
If it’s permanence we chase, carving our names in a stone tablet would serve better than a tweet — which is why we have our loved ones do exactly that when we stop making noise. Death aside, I guess I could be happy with a piece of construction paper with my name on it. That’s the kind of forever I was chasing at the Country Pancake House in Ridgewood, N.J. earlier this spring.
From the outside, the Country Pancake House looks like a typical Jersey diner (though, it should be noted that there’s another location in Florida). People who aren’t from New Jersey seem to moon over diners and the “diner experience,” but I’ve been desperate to break out of this state since I was dragged here 20 years ago, so the charm has long worn off. Usually, diners feature cramped and cracked vinyl booths, bland and shapeless food, and a never-fading funk of Taylor ham, eggs, and cheese.
Needless to say, I don’t walk in thinking I’ll soon make history. I just want breakfast. But when you read about a food challenge and hear about a “Wall of Fame” from the waitress, it’s pretty intoxicating. A man is prone to bold notions. Big ideas start to percolate.
When it comes to breakfast food, I’m not a tofu frittata guy. Bacon, homefries, bacon, eggs, and a waffle (if I’m feeling experimental) will do the trick. But sadly, finding an un-f*cked up version of those core staples often proves elusive. Dishes come out too dry or under seasoned. Soupy eggs, soggy waffles, and faux bacon are all too common.
The seating is intimate at The Original Pancake House. Your ears will have an easy time intercepting conversations from the neighboring tables. The menu is large, but I, personally, have no choice in what I’ll order. Destiny calls. The Pancake Eater’s Wall of Fame had blessed me with a vision of greatness — people cheering me on, cell phone cameras recording me for YouTube, and my wife beaming with pride. I decide to take the plunge.
My wife, Michella, has grown accustomed to my weirdness. There’s a wannabe performer trapped inside my walrus body, and because of him I often act as though the cameras are rolling. Point being, me trying to live out my John Candy/Great Outdoors fantasy while imagining roaring crowds probably doesn’t shock her, but she does do her best to prepare me once I place my order. I don’t want to see a picture of the pancakes before they arrive, so I reject her cell phone research and wait patiently. When I see the enormous size of non-Wall-of-Fame orders, perched on the arms of waitresses and headed to other tables, I start feeling like I’ve made a terrible mistake.
The waitress sneaks up on me. I don’t even realize that the food is about to be set down until I see Michella’s eyes widen. The plate completely covers my half of the table, dwarfing the side order of bacon that I added in an act of hubris. I am galled by the size of these pancakes. They’re each at least an inch thick and 13-inches wide. Suddenly, I’m in another John Candy movie: Uncle Buck.
Though I don’t draw a crowd, the kid and his grandfather at the table next to mine seem to get a kick out of my order, which entices me to joke around a little with them. I’m just folks, you see. A regular guy. But as I start to climb my personal Everest, I hear the kid say that I’ll never finish and that I’m “some kind of joker.” Joker? This is why I don’t like kids.
Despite the size of the challenge in front of me, I am clothed in confidence and eager to prove doubters wrong. I want to dance in the glow of victory and tell that little twerp to go straight to hell. I nod solemnly and take my first bite.
Do you know how dense an inch-thick pancake is? Light and fluffy is not a descriptor that fits here. These things are hubcaps. I start with a middle out approach, but after numerous stabs I’m not convinced that I’m making any progress, so I cut at a section of the pancake. My goal is to divide and conquer.
Sensing my struggle, our waitress comes over and offers a tip, “don’t fill up on drinks,” she says. Nodding, I order an orange juice. After about 15 minutes of picking and poking, with no real net-decrease in pancake size, I realize that I’m fighting a losing battle. I quit, absolutely stuffed, with only about a fifth of the challenge complete.
A busboy takes away my dashed attempt at immortality as my wife tries to stifle her laughter. A moment later our kindly waitress returns, hands spread wide, wondering what happened.
“I failed,” I tell her, words I’m sure she’s heard numerous times before.
When I look over at the kid and his grandfather, they’re wrapped up in their own food, unaware (or no longer interested) that I won’t conquer the challenge. Kids are the worst.
On my way out the door, I take a closer look at the “Wall of Fame.” It doesn’t look all that impressive anymore — just some names that no one reads. The true glory for the people on the wall likely came from the experience. Maybe their loved ones were wowed and the story has grown legs over the years. “The time Bill ate two pancakes the size of manhole covers,” or something like that.
Those yarns can get a person a lot closer to immortality than any piece of construction paper. But the thing is, so can my failed attempt to get my own name on the wall. It’s something to laugh about and share with my friends. That’s the real key — creating memories that take flight and help the people who care about you deepen their understanding of who you are: in my case, the guy who couldn’t handle the massive pancakes, but laughed about it the whole time… and still ate his side of bacon.
This is an updated version of a post that originally ran on June 4, 2016.