At MeMe’s, the queer-centric Brooklyn diner of the moment, a sexy cocoa Dutch baby arrives crowned with a halved banana, whipped cream, and a cherry. In Los Angeles, a new restaurant called Breakfast serves a menu of “oatmeal griddle cakes,” which it will make gluten free but won’t serve with syrup. The Lakewood in Durham serves a stack of sourdough pancakes with sorghum syrup; June’s All Day in Austin serves its with sour cherries. Across the vast swath of America, viral flapjacks proliferate, whether it’s baklava pancakes with a slice of actual baklava up top at Salt and Honey Bakery in El Paso, or pancakes sandwiching bright-purple ube at Truffles N Bacon Cafe in Las Vegas.
The still-subtle uptick of #PancakeContent on Instagram is creating the conditions for ever-growing cravings for pancakes. I am sorry to tell you this, but the cycle weathered by other comforting, wheat-based foodstuffs — to be embraced, memed, and disavowed in a ritualistic self-loathing pattern — is beginning again. Avocado toast is over. Jam-slathered brioche is done. It’s pancakes’ time.
This is not because fancy pancakes are new. The lemon-ricotta pancake is a brunch staple at higher-end restaurants; Dutch baby manias regularly sweep America. Sqirl has been serving a deeply weird and wonderful buckwheat-cactus pancake slathered in a cacao-nib pudding for years. Pancakes never went anywhere. They are just here to be rediscovered, like sunny-side-up eggs, and bacon, and toast — all of which, incidentally, have experienced mass fetish cycles over the past 15 years.
There’s a distinction between a trend and a fetish. Food trends are bellwethers of social aspiration and cultural exchange, or recognition of individual chefs’ importance, whether it’s Nancy Silverton sparking the burrata craze at Osteria Mozza or David Chang popularizing the pork bun. Trends are also kind of boring to anyone who doesn’t have a professional stake in the restaurant world — is the cresting mania for farro or an emerging hunger for raita compelling to anyone who doesn’t make, obsessively eat, and/or write about said whole grains or yogurt-based condiments? I am eternally hopeful, but all my friends tell me: no.
But a food fetish commands the attention of a much larger portion of the discourse, including people with somewhat sane relationships to food. A trend can become a fetish, but the fetish is less about novelty than emotional appeal. The foodstuff must be abundant and cheap, but not so abundant nor so cheap that it doesn’t seem special; it must be both comforting and forbidden. The fetish most often manifests as a $12 version of what’s usually a $4 dish, pricing out everyday consumers with what could be genuinely wonderful ingredients and technique, or just a lot of useless bling (vegan charcoal croissant and gold-leaf soft serve… congratulations).
These fetishes probably existed before the internet, but blogs and social platforms, especially Instagram, have accelerated the cycle and supercharged their conversion from genuine enthusiasms to conspicuously consumed objects. Think burgers, think tacos, think pizza, think soft serve, think toast — or, for fetishization’s (even) shittier manifestation, consider the current exoticizing fascination with tumeric and mezcal and kimchi and “authentic” tacos. The roots of a fetish are not a new ingredients or technique — they are cultural capital, whether that’s childhood nostalgia or contextless othering or, in the worst timelines, both. The most fetishized dish of all, avocado toast, neatly combines both fatty gluten comfort and a vague yet powerful suggestion that white people finally found the proper use for avocados.
Signs that pancakes are emerging as the new comfort carb, an on-ramp to fetish status, abound. All those enticing ’grams, for one. A stack of pancakes presents pleasingly organic, asymmetrical ovals when shot from above, especially if they are scattered with strawberries; a vertical stack offers teetering, syrup-drenched abundance.
But an ugly pancake is still a good pancake, and pancakes are not aspirational beyond the aspiration of going out to eat. People who could care less about stylish eating will declare their loyalty to pancakes over waffles on Twitter. One of the cheapest options at the cheapest meal, breakfast, which is the only meal an entire circle of friends in their 20s and 30s can currently afford to share together, pancakes are appealing at the all-day cafe and the old-school diner alike. Many millennials’ childhoods ran on Bisquick weekend mornings; the suburban teenage years of a not-insignificant number of media types turned on 2 a.m. diner pancakes with a cigarette and a shitty coffee and a sense of definitely getting away with something.
There’s even a delightful, fuck-your-healthy-toast meme: pancakes for the table. As masterfully broken down by Lindsay Robertson at Marie Claire, like all great memes, pancakes for the table has been around forever: a throwaway line by Liza Treyger in her set on Late Night with Seth Meyers in November 2016, the Twitter campaign of comedian Ian Karmel, a Twitter account with 16 followers launched in 2012, the subject of several tweets in 2010. The concept also predates all of this: The writer Zan Romanoff told me her college friends did the “pancakes for the table” thing long before it was a low-key meme, ordering a round while out for brunch in the mid-aughts. It is the perfect strategy for a carb-fearing moment, the pleasure of pancakes without the obligation of just eating pancakes, or pinning the guilt of ordering such a sugary, non-nutritionally-correct dish on any one person — hey, blame the table!
There’s a bleak pride to be taken in the fact that, as massive corporations and privileged food scolds vie to shape cultural tastes, the culture responds by staring at, fantasizing about, making, and eating an extremely normal dish until it becomes furiously symbolic. Are pancakes in for the kind of food-fetish ride that profits cultural grifters and thrives on ugly assumptions about whose food matters and why? God, I hope not.
If the full fetishization does take hold, the one thread of hope is that the dish is robust enough to survive it. Pancakes, if you define the term loosely, are one of humanity’s oldest foods; they can bear the symbolic weight. Extremely online Americans might get sick of looking at pancakes, or talking about pancakes, but it’s hard to imagine ever becoming tired of eating them.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.