Flipping Flapjacks in the American West
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
More Than Just a Weekend Tradition, the story of Our Pioneer Ancestor’s Favorite Bread Also Represents a Vanishing Skill
From the pioneer frontiersmen, 49er’s, soldiers, and other settlers to come, the ubiquitous “flapjack” actually dates back to prehistoric times. It has served countless generations as a convenient bread source that keeps well on long journeys and can be
prepared quickly. It goes under many names such as “hotcake”, “pancake”, “slapjack”, “griddle cake”, “shortcake” or “blanket”; and the varied listings of different recipes could easily fill a large cookbook. That said, the focus here is on the basic frontiersman’s fare that you can easily prepare at your campfire and then dazzle your friends with the acrobatic skill of “flipping” …or give them years of laughter at the results of you trying too hard to show off. The artful manner of “flipping flapjacks” has been documented in numerous writings. Among these were in the observations of Journalist, Albert Richardson as he traveled the gold fields of Colorado in 1859.“Flapjacks were the substitute for bread…At every camp, one saw perspiring men bending anxiously over the griddle, or turning the cake by tossing it skillfully into the air. To a little experience enabled the man to turn them without the aid of a knife, by first giving the fry-pan a little toss upward and forward. This threw the cake out and over, to be caught again the uncooked side down – all in a half second.”
Easy Pancake Recipes
Try this at home or your next camping event. The recipe is simple. According to D.C. Beard (1860-1920s era outdoorsman and founding member of the Boy Scouts of America), “Put a large tin cupful (2 cups / 1 pt.) of flour in a pan, add half a teaspoonful of salt, one heaping teaspoonful and one level teaspoonful of baking powder; mix the salt and baking powder well with the flour while it is dry. Then build your little mountain or volcano of flour with its miniature crater in the middle, into which pour water little by little.” From there, follow these steps:
Continue the process until it forms a batter that is thin enough to spread out rapidly but not watery.
Then grease a pan LIGHTLY. Use either a bacon rind or a piece of cloth moistened in cooking oil. A heavily greased pan makes a gross pancake; outdoorsmen of the period such as D.C. Beard warned emphatically against this transgression of culinary etiquette.
Next, pour the batter into the skillet but have a care to not fill the bottom of the pan entirely.
Be sure that the batter is not too runny or it will stick to the pan. It must be just loose enough to pour but nowhere near as viscous as melted ice cream.
Once the center bubbles up and the edges solidify and form bubbles, use a knife tip to gently prod under the edges of the cake to loosen it.
Finally, now that it is sliding free in the pan, dip the skillet down and then bring it up sharply enough to eject the cake into the air so that it will flip over back down onto its uncooked side. This requires a lot of practice and yes you will make mistakes but remember, it’s only flour and the bloopers are hilarious. (Quick note: The penalty of dumping your cake is that you must eat it coals and all.)
Below are two documented recipes from both sides of the American Civil War (1861-65).
The U.S. Army “Short Cake”
“Mix a dough of flour, salt, and cold water.” If you have any kind of fat, rub a little into the flour vigorously, before adding water. If you have baking-powder, use it. A tea-spoonful to a pint of flour, stirring it in before adding the water; but it is good without when baked before the fire.
*(p.76) Military Handbook & Soldier's Manual, Beadle & Company - New York 1861
The Confederate “Slapjack”
“Take flour, a little sugar, with water to make a batter. Mix with or without a little yeast. Mix into a paste and fry the same as fritters in clean fat or butter.”
*(page 103) Volunteer's camp and field book, John P. Curry - Richmond 1862
From numerous accounts from the California and Colorado Gold Rushes alone, pancakes seemed to fit the bill as the most common and convenient source of bread. I find them a delicious breakfast with honey, maple syrup or molasses but they are equally good with beans or wrapped around bacon, pork, or steak.
Happy cooking to you, all my friends out there on the other side of my bacon smoke.