The love language of food perseveres in a crisis.
For the past eight months, my wife and I have had our lives turned upside down. We are new parents to a funny, active, and loving son. Trying to navigate the waters of raising our first child has been complex enough, now we’re figuring out the same worries while coping with the blanket of fear that has descended upon everyone during the pandemic. My wife and I both deal with bouts of depression and anxiety, and welcoming our first child has only amplified their frequency. Before we needed to shelter at home, our joys in life came traveling around Wisconsin to explore state parks and other sights, and seeking out perfectly decadent breakfast food.
In the last two months, like most parents, we have often found ourselves needing a break. The cabin fever has set in and our eight-month-old has grown exponentially. We struggle to get through the day, but we find solace in the kitchen. Come dinner, we have started a new strategy of alternating who is in charge of the night’s meal. It’s an exercise in trust and a mental reset for the night’s chef. The one-on-one time spent with our son is not too shabby either.
Trying to navigate a holiday while the world faces a terrible health crisis is cumbersome. I wanted to drive to Target to pick out a card, but have not physically been inside a store in weeks, electing to focus on delivery or curbside pickup. I wanted to honor our mutual love of Wisconsin sight-seeing, but a prolonged trip to another part of the state is not worth putting ourselves and those in our community at risk.
How do you show proper appreciation to the person you love the most, on such a new and important holiday, when you are stuck at home?
When I realized that we’d have to postpone our summer plans of ingesting massive amounts of breakfast foods and staring at goats at the famed Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Door County, my stay-at-home Mother’s Day plan began to take shape. I would surprise my wife by making delicate, fruit-topped Swedish pancakes at home.
Starting the gift-giving early, I continued another newfound tradition of driving around Madison aimlessly with my son in the backseat. Saturday I found myself going through the difficult song and dance of taking a step outside of our house. Carseat? Check. Wiggly baby? Check. Is it cold outside? Whoops, need a blanket. Is he wearing socks? Come on, little guy, put your socks on, just once, please. Mask and hand sanitizer? Check. In these hour-long stretches of time, I find myself listening to new music, catching up on podcasts, or just finding a nice park to stop at. Saturday was particularly difficult as the little guy didn’t sleep well the night before. We are learning to ask for what we need and Saturday, my wife needed to be by herself for a bit. In the age of social distancing, even a quick jaunt around the neighborhood can make the heart grow fonder.
On this drive, I did something that I had never done before. Like our grandparents before us, I called in an order of groceries. Driving down East Wash on the way to Jenifer Street Market, I trusted an awesomely helpful clerk named Lilly with the ingredients for the next morning’s surprise, and debated the correct variety of goat cheese.
Waiting for the groceries in the parking lot with my trunk open, I noticed so many others pulling into the lot and doing the same. For those who stepped inside, they filled in an orderly line, six feet apart, masks on. Jenny Street employees came out of the store wearing gloves and masks, one of the few times I’ve seen a greatly coordinated effort to protect customers and employees alike. Groceries in the truck and a child stirring, I headed home.
In each relationship, the game of gift-giving is a personal and delicate balance. Each couple has their own tactics, and in mine, I am the self-proclaimed king of surprises. Around the holidays, I become annoyingly smug and reluctant to give clues. My wife has become accustomed to this behavior.
This past Sunday was our first Mother’s Day, and the art of the surprise is in itself surprisingly difficult to accomplish. Every trip out of the house has multiple steps and increases our anxiety. Two tired parents on the same busted sleep schedule don’t have time or energy to sneak away in the middle of the night and craft something elaborate. Instead, I resorted to covering a bouquet of flowers in a towel and leaving them on the porch hoping she wouldn’t notice, as well as storing all refrigerated ingredients in a bag in the fridge labeled ”No Moms Allowed!”
If I’m the king of surprises, my wife is the queen of persistent questioning. I played the fool and acted like there was nothing in the fridge until the morning, counting down the hours to wake up early to begin prepping for the surprise.
The first thing to do that morning was grate potatoes. Waking up at 5:45 a.m. to peel and grate potatoes is a new activity, but it beats changing diapers. I have no professional experience in the foodservice industry, but I like to imagine I’m a decent cook. My wife and I trust each other with certain meals. She knows I can season fish to meet her non-fish-loving taste, and I have full faith that she can make a mean chili, soup, or anything broth-based. Potatoes grated and slightly seasoned, I set them aside to make way for the main task at hand.
The recipe for Swedish pancakes is fairly simple on paper: 3 large eggs, 1 cup of flour, 1 and three-fourths cups of whole milk, half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 4 tablespoons of melted butter, with a little salt. After blending the melted butter into the remaining mixture, I immersion-blended the contents until smooth. Some recipes call for using a full-blown blender or whisking by hand, but you use what you can in your kitchen.
From here, the pan should sizzle, and still have some butter remaining on it. If you need to, melt another tablespoon. The batter should coat the entire bottom of an eight-inch pan, and it takes about a minute and a half for one side to set up. After that, carefully—and I mean sleeping-baby-diaper-and-jammy-change level of care—use a rubber spatula to flip the pancake and let the other side brown for about 30 seconds.
Swedish pancakes are in the thin-batter family of morning eats. My first experience with them was last summer when my wife and I took our first trip to Door County together. Well, technically the second trip, but I don’t count the time I got food poisoning and slept in a camper for 3 days and the only sights I saw were the bathroom and The Princess Bride on VHS ad nauseam. On the much more successful return trip, we took our baby-moon across some sites in Wisconsin and planned a proper Door County experience, filled with goats on roofs, Swedish pancakes, and state parks.
With the production line of buttery smooth batter churning, I spent the morning alone thinking of how the quiet has disappeared in our house. Our son is a babbling ball of love, the Zoom meetings are piling up, and truthfully the tension has risen. Food has continually been an anchor in our marriage and relationship. We used to spend weekends and the occasional weekday sampling breakfast gems across Madison. We’ve traveled down South and perused piles of smoked meats. A few years ago, we had Dutch pancakes (pretty similar to their Swedish pancake-cousins) at a quaint cafe in Amsterdam.
All of the bustling streets and packed restaurants we’ve traveled through during our relationship are currently desolate. The corner booth at the Weary Traveler where we announced my wife’s pregnancy to a close group of friends is covered in dust. The wooden benches at Ogden’s are empty and the faces that made up our weekly breakfast tradition are gone, facing an uncertain future in an industry that has been devastated.
Now, all we have are our hodgepodge kitchen skills to care for each other. My forgetful nature leads me to forget that those potatoes had been grated and left out, leaving them to quickly oxidize. My poor time-management skills caused a giant batch of Swedish pancakes to be finished before I started the goat-cheese and tomato omelette. As I hastily made the egg dish, I combed through our pantry to find a good seasoning balance for the Canadian bacon I threw in the pan to flash fry as I heard my son and wife begin to stir upstairs. A souvenir from last year’s trip up North sat at the top of the pantry: a barely used bottle of apple cider vinegar, brewed at one of the many Door County breweries nestled in the picturesque peninsula. How our lives had changed since that bottle was sampled and purchased is truly indescribable. Nights of worry, joy, frustration, and speechlessness in the face of our son’s growth in the past few months were our new reality. I deglazed the slabs of bacon in the savory, sweet liquid, conjuring memories of peaceful days.
Needless to say, breakfast was a hit. The pancakes were perfectly buttery and golden-brown and topped with my wife’s favorite fruits. The homemade-oxidized potatoes hash brown is just another funny story to tell in the coming years. Our son even got a chance to gum his first Swedish pancake. Slobber and excitement abounded.
While I know that this Mother’s Day was special and unfamiliar in so many ways, the mutual love and joy of a close family breakfast is a constant in our home. My wife’s unwavering strength, support, calm, realistic nature, willingness to eat my subpar potatoes, and scrap tooth-and-claw to provide our son with the absolute best is worthy of this breakfast each day. I hope to have next Mother’s Day executed by a culinary professional, but surprise Swedish pancakes under state-mandated quarantine to celebrate our first Mother’s Day as a new family is a snapshot for the Wisconsin food-loving scrapbook. One for just us to share at home, together.