Simple plates of pancakes were once a cornerstone of New Zealand cafe menus. These days they’re as rare as hen’s teeth – and where they do exist, they’re often alarmingly over-embellished. Who or what is to blame?
Though I was only young, New Zealand cafe culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s left a distinct impression on me. Cinnamon-topped cappuccinos served by the bowlful, verdant leafy side salads, a slightly dewy counter cabinet almost certainly containing a colossal chocolate mud cake. And most importantly, a blackboard on the wall behind the counter offering $16.50 (or thereabouts) pancakes.
There was an oddly comforting predictability to these pancakes. And while I can really only speak to the Tāmaki Makaurau experience, whether you were at Crucial Traders in Kingsland, Cezanne on Ponsonby Road or Melba on Vulcan Lane, the formula was much the same. White plates offered a blank canvas for a dependable composition: three, or if you were lucky, four, floppy pancakes, a jug of syrup and a combination of bacon rashers, a ramekin of berry coulis or a spliced grilled banana. Adornments could involve a twisted slice of orange, a pair of grapes or a sprig of mint. A quick dusting of icing sugar was a requisite right before the plate was sent out for delivery to hungry breakfast-goers, who might have even been reading a physical copy of a newspaper or magazine.
Homogeneity is rarely a good thing when it comes to food, but with these pancakes, familiarity was their secret ingredient.
Most of us would agree that on the whole, New Zealand’s culinary landscape has been enhanced over the last two decades. Everyday food, once largely standardised, is now brimming with ingredients and recipes that better represent the diversity of our population. Our collective palate has been expanded. Where this positive progress has been less evident is in the arena of pancakes, where things have taken a wild turn for the worse.
Despite their heroic presence in the clattering cafes of the turn of the 20th century, pancakes are scarcely on menus these days, regularly replaced by easier-to-prepare equivalents like waffles and French toast.
Perhaps even more heart-breaking, though, and where my real gripe lies, is that where pancakes remain on the menu, they’ve often been fancied up beyond recognition. Any initial excitement I feel when I spot the elusive “pancake” on a menu in 2023 immediately dissipates on reading the alarming description beneath. Now, it’s not unusual to see plates of pancakes piled precariously with ingredients like banana dust, poached figs, lemon curd, seeds, chopped nuts, labneh, praline crumble, Persian fairy floss, shaved dark chocolate, edible flowers, millet puffs, microgreens, marshmallows and coconut meringue. A time traveller from the 1990s would be utterly bamboozled by the state of it.
What made the pared-back pancakes of the 90s and early 2000s incredible was that everything on the plate (minus the sprig of mint) was there for a simple reason: it tasted good. There was art within that harmonious medley of salty, acidic, starchy and fatty, and the presentation itself was delightfully daggy. These were the pancakes of a burgeoning digital age. But little did any of us know, it was precisely the digital era that would eventually topple them.
If the pancakes of the new millennium were a reflection of the leisurely comfort of cafes at the time, pancakes now are a symbol of an industry reliant on us taking pictures of our breakfast. Social media – mostly Instagram and now TikTok – has completely changed the way we eat. It’s not hard to see the link between the state of our pancakes and the over-accessorised “freak shakes”, “rainbow unicorn bagels”, impossibly tall burgers or maximalist charcuterie boards that haunted our Instagram feeds in the 2010s. With that shift in focus to aesthetic and rarity, pancakes, like many other foods, are a victim of having to distinguish themselves by way of a facade of excessiveness. Whether they actually taste good has become secondary to what will attract eyeballs.
Lamenting the impact of social media on how we eat is a relatively tired subject matter. The eye-roll reaction to people who enjoy taking pictures of their food is even more so. Still, at least occasionally, I’d like to just sit in a cafe with a newspaper in hand and a large, delicious plate of unremarkable-looking pancakes that aren’t begging me to take their picture.