As this summer camp season comes to a close, I think back on a gem of an experience from a summer long ago. In my 12th year, I was asked to join a very elite, semisecret Camp Fire Girl sorority: the Royal Order of Pancake Flippers (ROPF) at Camp Wolahi.
This was no hushed ritual bathed in the golden glow of candlelight. Instead we were challenged to cook three pancakes in a cast-iron skillet over a roaring campfire, flip them without the aid of a spatula, and then eat each one. A young woman successful in this effort was authorized to wear proudly the ROPF insignia on her honor gown ever after.
This accomplishment was nowhere near as easy as it appears on paper. Trust me. As Camp Fire Girls, we had all cooked over a campfire many times before – and nary a hair was singed in the process. Cooking was not the challenge; flipping was.
Considering that none of us had yet graduated from college with a degree in aeronautical engineering, we had to learn for ourselves all about the aerodynamics – or abysmal lack of aerodynamics – of pancakes.
The goal was to hurl said pancake up into the atmosphere and hope it would land on its uncooked side back down in a very hot, very heavy cast-iron skillet. On its upward ascent and on its downward flight, there were multiple hazards that could cause said pancake to deviate tragically from its flight path.
For one thing, the campsite was surrounded by pine trees and leafy bushes of all descriptions, which encroached on our airspace. Many were the times that a pine tree, feeling persnickety, reached out and snatched one of our innocent little pancakes as it flew past.
Frequent were the times when the flipping trajectory took the partially cooked pancake into the waiting branches of a nearby bush.
The only ones cheering were the birds and squirrels, which were enjoying the feast before them. The birds flew off to their nests, strips of half-cooked pancakes in their beaks while squirrels scurried off to burrows to feed their young. We did not offer them syrup as they went.
Another problem with our pancakemaking was that there were times when not enough butter was put in the pan and so, try as one might, said pancake was glued irrevocably to said pan, thwarting all attempts to launch it. So we learned that "failure to launch" not only applied to rockets and airplanes; it applied to some of our pancakes as well.
I watched the girls who started before I did. I noticed that the ones who made regular-size pancakes got in trouble.
Why? Well, it was supposed to be breakfast, but if you made and flipped two pancakes and your third became bush bait, then you had to start all over again. Some girls flipped and ate one, and then missed the next one. Start over. Flip and eat two. No. 3 goes into the tree. Start over again. Those girls became quite full quite quickly.
So I resolved to pour pancakes about one inch across. That way, if I had to start over multiple times, I wouldn't get full. I could always make more pancakes later, once I had completed ROPF.
I also noticed that the angle at which a girl threw a pancake was the greatest predictor of whether or not she had a chance of getting it back into the pan. Girls who flipped with one hand often threw the pancake far to the left or far to the right. It was not uncommon to see a girl charging across the campsite, skillet in pot holder-gloved hands trying to chase down her projectile pancake. Some were successful, but some crashed into the bushes.
The other problem was that if you didn't apply just the slightest bit of motion, the pancake didn't flip over. Then you had to flip it again ... or start over. Pancakes flipped with too much height ended up in the tree branches overhead. Pancakes flipped with not enough height never made it out of the pan.
Therefore, I resolved to hold the pan with two hands and toss as vertically as possible to a height of about two feet, giving the flapjack time to flip over.
And so I took my turn. I poured a small pancake and successfully flipped and ate it. Two more times I accomplished this – in a row, no less, and on my first try!
While I had qualified for ROPF, I was still a little hungry, so I flipped and ate a few more really dinky pancakes. After all, why try a bigger pancake and fool with success? The trees were messy enough as it was.
The girls who attempted the feat next followed my example. They were happy, successful, and not stuffed with pancakes at the end of the event.
That day at lunch with the younger girls, several asked me what I had done to earn my ROPF badge, so I proudly regaled them with tales of dinky, flying pancakes.
I understand that dinky pancakes were all the rage the next year.