Yesterday’s posts sparked a very interesting discussion on the subject of pancakes. Where did they come from? Who were the first to make them out of wheat? How did they spread? It’s my opinion that we’ll never have definitive answers to those questions, since pancakes are far too old. Pancakes (or something not entirely unlike them) are the first form of bread invented by humans. A combination of grain paste, water, time and fire. But just how old are they?
While theories vary widely, it’s thought that fire first became the accessory-du-jour for the fashion-forward Homo Erectus somewhere around 800,000 years ago. It’s fair to assume that some form of cooking began around that time, though dedicated, single-use “cooking pits” didn’t come along until about 25,000 years ago if you can believe it. I mean come on guys, three quarters of a million years before we get the grill station? Sheesh!
Even after that, it would take a further 13,0000 years before proto-breakfast eaters had something to go with their maple syrup, orange juice, coffee and doedicurus breakfast sausages. That was the time, about 12,000 B.C., when humans quit nibbling grain off random stalks and started growing it in bunches. It was the so-called Neolithic Revolution, when Eurasion tribes stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and began to settle down amid their emmer fields, permanent structures, domesticated dogs and primitive Rotary Clubs.
Suddenly humans had large quantities of grain around them, and, as they did with so many other things back then, they eventually came around to hitting it with rocks. This produced what could be thought of as early flour, though what it really was was a coarse grain meal, unsuitable for bread, but perfect for mixing with water to make porridge. Or, when cooked, a kind of primitive pancake batter.
The earliest cooking surfaces are thought to have been pieces of flat rock. Slate, for instance, which breaks off hillsides in almost totally smooth sheets, perfect for placing over a fire pit and pouring your rock-pounded, water-thinned grain gruel on. The first pancakes couldn’t have been “all that”, as the kids like to say. It would still be a while before butterscotch syrup and whipped butter were available to us as a species. But they would have been a highly nutritious, portable food that would have made the hours of standing in waist-deep snow waiting for a woolly mammoth to walk by that much more bearable.
But of course Eurasia wasn’t the only locale on Earth where grains were available. Asia had rice, the Americas had corn and just about everyplace else had either seeds or tubers that could be dried, crushed, mixed with water and made into some sort of cookable batter. So you see, the further one gets into the history of pancakes the more confusing it gets. Better in my view to just think of them as a species-wide innovation and get on with making your blintzes.