How good can a pancake be?
That was the question running through my mind when my high school friend Ancil and his partner, Molly, picked me up in Portland last week for a drive across the Columbia River into Vancouver, Washington. We were joining friends for breakfast at Duck Tales.
Back in Portland for a pre-Christmas week to see my sons, my sister and old friends, I was lured by the promise of a walk along the river after breakfast.
“Duck Tales is run by the family that owned Waddles,” Molly told me.
Waddles was a landmark for those of us who grew up in Portland in the ’50s. It was across the Interstate from Jantzen Beach, the amusement park on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. In fact, the first time my friends set off to meet others at Duck Tales they mistakenly thought they’d find it at the old standby’s original location, now occupied by Hooters.
No such thing. Duck Tales (612 N. Devine St.) is on an unprepossessing strip mall in Vancouver. It has none of the pizazz of the original site.
On the way over in the car, my friends went on and on about the fabled pancakes. I’d never eat a better pancake, they told me.
“They separate the eggs, beat the whites, then fold them in,” Molly said. “Strange, though. The pancakes aren’t particularly fluffy.”
Molly with a “waddler”
I’m not a pancake aficionada, if there is such a thing, but I remember my father’s “eggy” pancakes fondly. Pancakes at Duck Tales are reminiscent of those childhood treats — not particularly attractive and substantively lacking in uniformity.
My short stack — two, rather uneven disks, five or so inches in diameter — arrived with a couple of chubby sausages. And even though the waitress managed to spill the tiny pitcher of syrup all over my plate on the way to the table and I spent the first few minutes rinsing my fingers and knife handle in my water glass, I’d have to agree with my friends.
Up until the moment I took my first bite I had always thought of pancakes as a way to conduct maple syrup to my mouth. Never again.
Of course, good company has everything to do with what constitutes a good meal. My trip back to Portland also included a lunch with my sister, Leslie, and Widney and Glenn Moore. Leslie and Widney attend Sonata Piano Camp in Vermont, where they have became roommates and friends with more than music in common. Leslie had had a lively discussion with Widney’s husband Glenn about Robert Frost when he visited Vermont the previous year. The Robert Frost Stonehouse and Museum, connected with Bennington College, is nearby.
Our delicious lunch at Allora (504 NW 9th Ave), a small Italian restaurant in Portland’s Pearl district, was accompanied by an exegesis of one of Frost’s early poems, Home Burial.
Leslie had the spaghetti carbonara and pronounced it as good as any she had ever eaten. I ordered the lunch special: halibut with roasted cherry tomatoes and capers over pasta. It was all I could do not to tip the plate to slurp up the remaining sauce.
Yet the talk was as satisfying as the food. In the quiet of Allora, Glenn, who had made a study of Frost’s work and life, pushed the discussion to a broader understanding of the poem’s images in the context of Frost’s own struggles with loss, depression, and death.
Sometimes, quiet itself is the necessary ingredient that makes a meal memorable. The last night I was in Portland, I walked the five blocks from the house to our favorite neighborhood eatery, Milo’s City Cafe (1325 NE Broadway St.)
It was one of those cold, glistening nights more typical of weather in Phoenix than in Portland, where overcast skies blot out the stars. I sat at a booth near the bar facing the street. I could look past the strings of Christmas lights framing the windows at sidewalk passersby as I drank my red wine.
The meatloaf with mushroom sauce served on a bed of mashed potatoes and a side of fresh roasted broccoli and baby carrots was enough for lunch the next day. (I took half of it home.) My chilled lemon souffle with whipped cream and berries was just enough. Un bocadito served on a vintage Santa plate.
Sitting at table with friends or even alone can be such a pleasure. It fuels the spirit.