This being the week of the Calgary Stampede, people will be eating pancakes. The Stampede is pancakes, cooked in many ways and in many places and eaten at all times of the day.
This is not so much a culinary delight, as one Calgarian explained recently, as it is medical necessity. "Guys in the oil patch drink so much by 10 in the morning during Stampede week," he said, "they need something to soak it up."
Frankly, there are better reasons to eat pancakes. You might want to evoke deeply personal and Proustian memories or your childhood. You may want to dive into a soft mesh of morning satisfaction that will hold you until dinner - the health rationale.
You may simply want to stuff something reassuringly filling into your mouth as fast as you can. Whatever your motivation, I recommend the thin Finnish pancakes at the famous Hoito restaurant in Thunder Bay.
The Hoito is in the basement of the Finlandia Club. The Club is a big old Edwardian pile that was originally the leftist Finnish Labour Temple, a building that's a hundred years old this year. (There's going to be a big party July 22, to celebrate.) The Hoito is a large rambling restaurant with blond wood walls and mostly communal tables.
When I arrived, at 8:15 in the morning, ten regulars were already eating. A tall, square-jawed, naturally blond waitress named Artith Francis - half Welsh, half Finnish, which is a spelling problem at the very least - came over and poured me some coffee and told me that the mojakka, the Hoito's famous Finnish beef stew, wasn't yet ready, but that I should order a salt fish sandwich and an order of Finnish pancakes with bacon.I felt instantly well-cared for.
One does in the Hoito, which means "care" in Finnish. In 1918, at the end of the first world war, life was dark for Finns in Canada, though they were a mainstay of the workforce in both mining and forestry. Immigration had been shut down.
The Finnish local of the Social Democratic Party of Canada, the majority shareholder in the new Finnish Labour Temple, had been declared illegal under the War Measures Act. A Finnish immigrant without papers could be jailed for carrying a Finnish-language book.
So the Finns, a co-operative minded winter people to begin with, took to looking out for one another. When a group of loggers complained they couldn't find anyplace cheap to eat when they came out of the bush for weekends, a union organizer named A. T. Hill convinced the Finns to pony up $5 each to create the Hoito, a co-operative restaurant. (Finn later helped found the Communist Party of Canada, for which he spent five years in Kingston penitentiary in the 1930s.)
For $6, a Finn could eat all the Hoito food he could manage for a week. Even in 1974, when the Finlandia Club, a non-profit organization devoted to the promotion of Finnish culture in Canada, took over the restaurant, dinner still cost $1.
While I waited for my pancakes, Artith gave me a tour of the Hoito's frantic kitchen, where the batter's mixed in five gallon pails and transferred to aluminum jugs and poured out onto a black griddle and flipped with one swift move when the bubbles show. It was an operation.
Artith served 100 people a day, and was one of eight waitresses. She still found time tell me about her daughter, and about how mojakka was once made at the communal tables in the restaurant, and how the Scandanavian House across the street served Scandanavian pancakes and had a shorter line but wasn't as good (there is considerable dispute about this), and how the Hoito also makes "fantastic liver and onions, Thunder Bay's best," which is not praise one hears very often.
She also told me how to make an approximation of Hoito pancakes: 4 eggs, 4 cups of milk, 2 cups of flour, sugar and salt, and a griddle big enough to let the runny batter go thin, at 375 degrees.
Then my Finnish pancakes arrived.
There were three of them in a stack that completely covered a nine-inch plate. Each one was 3 millimetres thin, and together, if my math is correct (and I can't believe it is) they constituted 288,280 cubic millimeters of stupendous syrup- soaked pancake. I managed to eat half of them, and gave up reluctantly.
By then it was 9:55, and a lineup was starting to snake out the door, next to which some Finnish sadist had installed an ancient brass weigh scale. I stepped on it on my way out. I like to allow 20 pounds for clothing. Still, a walk seemed appropriate. I speed-strolled around Thunder Bay for an hour, thinking about pancakes.
I remembered that my mother didn't like making them, which reminded me that she'd died a few months earlier. I remembered the tiny dollar pancakes I made for my daughter until she taught herself, in the course of a better-spattered morning, how to make oatmeal-buttermilk pancakes with sour cherry sauce for me. I considered the pancake as the Canadian equivalent of Proust's pipsqueak pastry madeleine.
True, I had been hungry. I'd driven two hours to get to the Hoito for breakfast - all the way from the Rossport Inn, the oldest hotel on the north shore of Lake Superior. It was a trim place, a former CPR passenger hotel (the tracks ran right out front, and shook the joint whenever a freight thundered by). It overlooked a fishing wharf and Lake Superior, and had been owned for decades by a family of Finns.
The current owners, Ned Basher, an American ex-fighter pilot, and his Canadian wife Shelagh, an Icelandic beauty from Winnipeg, had first seen it from the water. Before the Bashers restored it, the Rossport had fallen into bad use as a strip bar, with the strippers living in the bedrooms upstairs.
"We suspect there might have been a second business going on upstairs," Ned Basher told me after I'd polished off a portion of the house specialty, Trout Hemingway - caught that day five miles up the shore in Paysplat by Kenny Goodchild, a native fisherman - and a two-inch high slice of solidly packed wild blueberry pie.
"So if you feel your bed shaking in the night," Shelagh added - we'd been talking about ghosts - "it might not be the train going by."
I said goodnight shortly after that, and went up to Room 3, a corner room with an iron bed and Hudson Bay blankets and an excellent selection of books on the shelves. I read for an hour and fell asleep.
At three in the morning I woke up sharply. There was someone walking in the hall, outside my door.
I thought to myself: that's strange, there's no one else staying in my part of the hotel. Ned and Shelagh slept in a separate building.
Then I realized the footsteps weren't in the hall. They were coming from my room. Next to my bed. They weren't frightening steps, just someone slowly pacing, and thinking. I don't believe in ghosts in any way, but I'm pretty sure I'm not making this up.
The room went quite cold. I could have sworn I felt my bed rocking.
There was no train.
After a busy night like that, you need pancakes.
Ian Brown eats Canada