Flapjacks - a Guide Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Flapjacks - a Guide

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Advertising billboard for flapjack flour, by Carol M Highsmith

When someone asks you whether you like 'flapjacks', what do you think of? Do you envision a tasty homemade treat of buttery oats and syrup? Or are you thinking about breakfast? When h2g2 asked this question, Researchers from the US and UK got a surprise: once again, our babel fish had to deal with the confusions of our shared language.

UK Version: Flapjacks Are Traybakes

The recipe for oat-based flapjacks is fairly simple. To fill a 20cm x 30cm (8in x 12in) baking tray, melt 200g (7oz) each of butter, sugar, and honey or syrup in a pan, then stir in 400g (14oz) of oats. For extra variety, you can stir in additional ingredients - options include dried fruit, chocolate chips, or spices such as cinnamon. Spread the mixture evenly into the tray, and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C (350°F/Gas Mark 4) for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Leave the tray to cool, and then cut the flapjack into pieces - squares, rectangles and triangles all look good.

Traybake flapjacks originated in the 1930s. They are not to be confused with the flapjacks referred to in Agatha Christie's 1935 novel Death in the Clouds - those are pancake-like containers for face powder.

North American Version: Flapjacks Are Pancakes

Come, thou shalt go home, and we'll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days,and moreo'er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome.
– William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Act I, Sc 1

Pancakes are popular in many forms in different countries, from Dutch pannekoeken to French crêpes and Austrian Palatschinken and beyond. They go pretty far back, too: as far as humans can remember. They had pancakes in the Stone Age: Ötzi the Iceman had pancakes for his last meal, poor guy. The gods of Mesopotamia were said to be particularly fond of pancakes. When Marduk, who was politicking to become king of the gods, wanted to butter the others up, he staged a pancake feast.

Shakespeare himself refers casually to pancakes in Pericles, although as usual it isn't clear whether Shakespeare knew the ancient Greeks liked pancakes (they did), or whether this was just another topical reference like the time he told the sky to rain potatoes in the early 15th Century. Shakespeare called the pancakes 'flapjacks' – scholars gloss the word with 'pancakes'. 'Flap' mean to turn over, and a 'jack' was a workman ('jack-of-all-trades') or tool (boot jack) or general thing-a-ma-jig. So flapjacks were thingums you flipped over.

This meaning of the word came to North America in the 17th Century. European colonists had a variety of names for this cake: hoecake, because iron was hard to get so what do you think they cooked on? Pancake, griddle cake, batter cake, hot cake, flipjack... this relatively fast food that could be cooked on an open fire hit the spot, especially with New England farmers who had milk and eggs to use up.

Flapjacks were also popular with woodland explorers and trappers; although lacking milk and eggs, their versions may have left a lot to be desired. In the Southeast, the shortage of white flour made pancakes a much rarer treat. Southern griddle cakes were made of maize and called johnny cake.

Flapjacks, or pancakes, are still a common breakfast item today, found on diner menus across the US and Canada. At home, many cooks use prepared pancake mixes. In 2021, Pepsico rebranded its longtime best-selling pancake mix by dropping the name 'Aunt Jemima' in response to protests about racial stereotyping1. It's now called Pearl Milling Company.

Flapjacks and their terminology have been a class issue, a race issue, and even a gender issue over the years. Early American cookbooks seem to have slighted flapjacks, although Amelia Simmons' deliciously-spelled 1796 tome American Cookery does tell you how to make 'Indian Slapjack' and 'Johny[sic] Cake', both of which use maize meal. For real flapjack-making instructions, we have to turn to books designed for the lesser cooks: kids and men.

Want to Make Some Flapjacks?

Here's a recipe from the 1910 book Cookery for Little Girls by Olive Hyde Foster. The book tells mothers how to train their daughters in easy cooking, so you shouldn't have too much trouble with it. Here's what Ms Foster says under 'Good Things for Breakfast':

If successful with these things [biscuits, muffins, corn bread], she will be quite sure with a little care to make good griddle cakes. Have her sift two cups of flour with two teaspoons of baking powder, half a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of sugar, and stir in the yolks of two eggs, well beaten, and a cup and a half of milk. When perfectly smooth, and just before baking, fold in the stiff whites. Grease a hot griddle with a piece of suet2, put down a spoonful of batter at a time, and turn as soon as it bubbles well over the top. Watch carefully to keep from burning, but never turn a pancake the second time.

After a girl has learned how to make biscuit and other light breads, she should be shown at once how to prepare eggs in different ways so that she will be able at any time to serve a dainty breakfast.

Could mere boys make flapjacks? Well, yes. But we wouldn't recommend it. This recipe comes from Woodcraft and Camping, 1920 edition (first published in 1884), by 'Nessmuk', aka George Washington Sears, a rugged outdoorsman. He writes thus:

I have never been able to get much help from cook-books, or the scores of recipes published in various works on out-door sport. Take, for example, Frank Forester's "Fish and Fishing." He has more than seventy recipes for cooking fish, over forty of which contain terms or names in French. I dare say they are good – for a first-class hotel. I neither cook nor converse in French, and I have come to know that the plainest cooking is the best, so that it be well done and wholesome.

...there are men who prefer warm bread all the time. In this case the usual resort, from Maine to Alaska, is the universal flapjack. I do not like it; I seldom make it; it is not good. But it may be eaten, with maple syrup or sugar and butter. I prefer a plain water Johnnycake, made as follows: Put a little more than a pint of water in your kettle and bring it to a sharp boil, adding a small teaspoonful of salt, and two of sugar. Stir in slowly enough good corn meal to make a rather stiff mush, let it cook a few minutes, and set it off the fire; then grease your largest tin dish and put the mush in it, smoothing it on top. Set the dish on the out-door range described in the previous chapter, with a lively bed of coal beneath – but no blaze. Invert the second sized tin over the cake, and cover the dish with bright live coals, that bottom and top may bake evenly, and give it from thirty-five to forty minutes for baking. It makes wholesome, palatable bread, which gains on the taste with use.

No doubt this 'plain water Johnnycake' made the campfire cook feel very outdoorsy, but it's not even good cornbread, and we recommend the domesticated versions.

Flapjack Humour

While Nessmuk was out camping, the 'Mutt and Jeff' cartoonist was busy making surreal jokes using the humble flapjack. See the 1920 animated cartoon on YouTube.

1'Aunt Jemima' was an advertising figure first portrayed by African American Nancy Green at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Ms Green was one of the first Black corporate models. Objections were raised to the continued use of this 'Mammy' stereotype and the logo was discontinued.2No suet, or reluctant to rob the bird feeder? Don't panic. You can use cooking oil, shortening, margarine, or butter.

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