ON FRIDAY MORNING, I meet five runners for a four-mile spin through Savannah, Georgia. Lydia DePue leads the running program at the local Fleet Feet Sports shop, which celebrates Fridays with a costume run; hence, her bunny ears. She mapped today’s course, which starts and ends at Clary’s Cafe. We have two items on our agenda: ( 1) an easy run amid the Southern scenery and ( 2) a righteous order of pancakes afterward. As one who often falls into the rut of running by myself on the same flat route on the same nondescript roads, I enjoy every step of this group outing. We run on the cobblestones, under the oaks, and along the river. We run through the historic Colo- nial Park Cemetery and Forsyth Park. We talk about race strat- egy and Savannah’s must-eat-there restaurants.
“I think we have some people in our [Fleet Feet] run group,”
Lydia says, “who run just for the Saturday breakfasts.”
I want to respond, “Some people?”
As runners, we live in this loop: We burn. We earn. We yearn.
Of all the foods that a runner might use to lube the anatomical
engine, there’s little doubt about what tops the list—those circular stacks of flour that can be morphed into any flavor, texture,
or style you want. Buttery, syrupy, nutty, fruity, mushy, crispy,
cakey, creamy, chunky, sugary, chocolaty. Short stacks, high
stacks. As big as a catcher’s mitt, as small as a monocle. One,
three, five, a dozen, oh sure, I’ll finish yours, too. For a runner,
the pancake is to a weekend morning as a turkey is to Thanksgiving, as a hot dog is to a ball game, as a martini is to James Bond.
Soon, we circle back to Clary’s (established 1903), a local
landmark featured in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and
Evil—an appropriate fact, I think, when discussing the lore and
legend of the pancake.
Aah, pancakes. So good. And so evil—if left to the renegade
whims of tongue and stomach.
After the run, we sit at an outside table next to the road we
ran on. The talk ricochets around all things running—
fund-raising, expo locations, Boston, Dean Karnazes, and something
called a double-pump, which takes you over the Talmadge
Memorial Bridge three times in a back-to-back 5-K and 10-K.
While my mouth talks, my mouth waits.
I order two pancakes. On one side, they’re tree-bark brown. On
the other, more doe-colored. But their arrival is announced by
their size: They’re so big that I can’t even see the plate—a heli-
copter could land on them. I add butter, I add syrup. With coffee
and a side of bacon, each bite of pancake is firm yet soft, sweet
yet substantial, light yet filling. Perfect gustatory balance.
This, I know, is the finish line.
ZOOM IN TO OUR TABLE AT CLARY’S, and you’ll see a bunch of
sweaty-headed, synthetic-fabric-wearing runners eating a satisfying postrun breakfast. Zoom out and you’ll see that same scene
played out every weekend in just about every neighborhood
where people run: Athletes of all speeds and sizes talking about
runs of past and future over pancakes of all flavors and diameters.
A pancake’s beauty, of course, lies in its simplicity. But the endless
potential variations are what make them sublime. (I like mine
brown. My wife likes them mushy. My kids like Uncle Tim’s.)
Though some might argue that pasta or GU represents the
perfect running fuel, others make the case that nothing stacks
up to, well, stacks of pancakes. “They’re a dense source of energy,
meaning that you don’t have to stuff your face to get a great deal
of calories out of them,” says Lisa Dorfman, R.D., director of The
University of Miami’s graduate studies program on nutrition
for health and human performance.
But for runners, they’re more than that. They’re warm and
spongy. Indulgent yet fulfilling. The ideal vehicle to carry berries
or nuts (good) or buttery and syrupy (evil) passengers. They can
be glammed up with all the flair of the Vegas strip, but hold up
wonderfully on their own in their pure nakedness. “Pancakes
reflect our sit-down breakfast time, now that we’ve evolved into
a ‘shove a bar in your mouth and call it breakfast’ culture,”
Dorfman says. “The pancake is a good-feeling kind of food.”
There is evidence of pancake-looking creations from many
centuries ago, and perhaps the first English recipe was recorded
in the 1588 book called Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen.
“It was just the natural thing you’d do if you had flour and were
trying to make something quick,” says food historian Ken Al-
bala, author of Pancake: A Global History.
Different cultures have different recipes and names, Albala
points out. The word pancake originates from an ancient Greek