I cooked up a mess of buttermilk pancakes the other morning and if I do say so myself, I make a pretty tasty pancake. It had been several months since I’d cooked them because, well I just don’t have the number of ‘customers’ that I used to have. Two thirds of my younger clientele has moved out, onto their own culinary feasts. Many times when I’m cooking pancakes, (especially if kielbasa sausage is involved), I am reminded of the annual Pork Festival in Eaton, Ohio.
Many would say that Eaton, Ohio is in the middle of nowhere. Tell that to Mr Chester Newton, one-time mayor of local Somerville and department manager for the entire grinding area at the foundry I worked for in the eighties. Maybe Eaton is off the beaten path, but to the folks of Preble County, it is the county’s seat and home to one of the most popular county festivals for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Tell me where else a person can go to enjoy a delicious and affordable all-you-can-eat pancake and sausage breakfast in the morning, pig races in the afternoon and the best tasting pork chops in the world? Answer – nowhere but the Preble County Pork Festival!Yes, the pig races and all the great variety of crafts and booths there are special, and yes the chops there are the best in the world. But the Pork Festival holds a special place in my heart for all the memories I have tucked away, memories all related to the festival and the area there. Speaking of their chops, I once made a solo trip there on my first motorcycle, a little Yamaha 400XS Custom, just to pick up a dozen chops. I strapped the bag to the rear seat and made my way back home – a hour’s trip, but well worth it.
I guess you’re wondering whether the festival has anything other than pork, like strawberries maybe? Just ask our oldest boy, Mitch. The year was 1986. My wife had given birth to our second son back in March. We were at the festival. I was pushing six month old Corey in the stroller and we were all walking through the craft areas. My sister Lori was with us that day when she and I both just sort of turned around to see five year old Mitch walking behind us with his tongue hanging out. We had just passed a few awesome looking fake strawberry crafts. They did look delicious! My sister asked, “did you lick this?” Mitchell shook his head up and down, (with his tongue still hanging out). We just started cracking up. I picked it up and smelled it; it had a hard cinnamon smell. We had to find some water for Mitch but for ten minutes or so, it looked like we had brought our greyhound dog, immediately after the big race.Over the past five years, I’ve made a conscience effort to cut back on meat and dairy consumption, especially grazing mammals (i. e. Beef). Admittedly though, I am a sucker for pork sausage and well, the Pork Festival cooks up the most delicious chops I’ve ever tasted. The pork festival might have originally been borrowed from Tipton, Indiana but Preble County has made it THE hog heaven every third weekend in September. California is a bit too far away to make a special weekend trip to Ohio in September so every now and again, I have to pop out the recipe for the special chop marinade and spray sauce. It’s not exactly the same, but the sauce makes the taste close enough to at least bring back the memory. Sauce + Memory = Great Tasting Chops!
Here’s the spray recipe:
4 oz water
4.5 oz cider vinegar
3 oz oil
1 oz Worcester sauce
2 tsp garlic juice
1 oz salt
The great chops and delicious fake strawberries, and even the pig races are not my fondest of memories from the Pork Festival. No, my fondest memory would have to be the breakfasts; not for the all-you-can-eat pancakes and sausage but for the experience itself:
I awake at the sound of my 4:45am alarm, get up and walk into my two boys rooms to shake them awake. (Whispering) “wake up, it’s time. Be quiet and get ready – we leave as soon as you’re ready”. I tiptoe back to my room and quietly get dressed, careful not to wake Kim or Timmy. Amazingly, we three all get dressed and make our way downstairs without waking the non-participants. It’s usually pretty chilly so we all have our heavy coats and gloves with us.
We pile into the car where the two boys in the back quickly fall back to sleep. They’ll get in a good 60+ minutes of snooze time. They know the routine and enjoy the experience as much as I do, so there’s never any griping or moaning. I head on down the new ‘Michael J Fox’ highway, (not its real name), and make my way over to Prytania Avenue where I once lived as a kid myself. My stepfather Joe sees me pull up and comes out the front door, coffee cup in hand. This is the first breakfast for Joe with us, (the first of several until cancer takes him away).
When we get there, it’s still cold, not any warmer yet. There’s plenty of parking, the big crowds won’t be there for another few hours so we get our pick of spots, close to the breakfast buildings. They’re due to be open in just a few minutes so we stand in line. Joe is one of those happy strangers you just love to talk to – easily approachable and always smiling. He has no trouble striking up a conversation with whomever is in front of us that day. We all have a few good laughs as we’re waiting in line. My attention is divided between Joe and my boys, making sure the boys are ok and get their proper fill on their plates.
The attendees finally begin bringing in the dozens of us stupid enough to get up at the crack of dawn. We go through the lines, getting as many pancakes and sausage we want. There’s hot coffee, pint sized cartons of milk and orange drink. Take as much as you want and yes, you can come back for as much as you want. We all find our ways to any one of the many empty picnic tables. The tables all have syrup bottles already on them and there are volunteers walking around to make sure we never run out. The buildings have heaters so they’re relatively comfortable.Often to the annoyance of my boys, Joe and I take our time, often drinking several cups of java, stretching out the morning, the conversations with our breakfast neighbors and the warm feeling of how sometimes life can be good. Eventually though, we make our way back to our vehicle. We drive back to Prytania where I drop off Joe. Me and the boys make our way back to our home in nearby Liberty Township where I’ll crawl back into the warm bed heated by my still sleeping wife.
These forty minute one-way drives plus the times at breakfast are perhaps my fondest memories with Joe. They are the only memories I have where it’s just Me, Joe and my boys. It became a little tradition for us and it didn’t matter how good or bad the weather was that year – we were going to Pork Festival Breakfast. Joe seemed to like these little trips as much as I did. He made me feel like his birth son and truth be told, Joe was my father and getting up at the crack of dawn to travel in the freezing cold to eat a bunch of cheap pancakes is something only a good father would do. Thanks Joe – not a week goes by where I don’t find myself thinking about, and missing you.It’s not terribly sophisticated, but this is a great recipe for rich, delicious pancakes:
2 Cups Bisquick
2 Cups real buttermilk (absolutely make sure it’s buttermilk)
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla (imitation is fine)
Mix everything together in a big bowl. When you spoon out a glop for your hot griddle, have a little bit of butter ready to put down on the griddle before each new glop. Use the back of your large plastic glop spoon to sort of spread the batter around a bit. This helps to even out the heating on the batter. Play around with your flipping time, but flip only once before removing the cake. My little test is that I quickly flip it back and use my spatula to peek into the rear side of the pancake to make sure the batter is fully cooked.
Stack the cakes on a plate until you cook them all. Don’t worry, they stay hot. If you want special syrup, I like to buy real maple syrup and mix the bottle in with my Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima syrup, making a 30/70 (or so) mixture. You can of course use pure maple syrup, but if you’re on a budget, do the mixture. You’ll love it!