Today marks the tenth anniversary of IHOP’s National Pancake Day. Head to just about any IHOP today and enjoy free buttermilk pancakes as the company solicits donations for the Children’s Miracle Network! Did I mention free pancakes?
While this is a noble undertaking, historical context does have a way of ruining our joy now doesn’t it? Even free pancakes.
During the first half of the twentieth century, there was a National Pancake Festival that was sponsored by Quaker Oats, the owners of the Aunt Jemima franchise. Similar concept but with even more fan fair. Representatives from the company would go to places like children’s hospitals and Kiwanis clubs to make pancakes for everyone and raise money for charity. There was even a Pancake Princess! And races at Disneyland! It was a nationwide celebration of deliciousness for a good cause!
Have I ruined it yet?…No?
Well, it seems I left out one important detail. The center of these celebrations was Aunt Jemima herself, who made appearances all over the country.
Here is Aunt Jemima (real name: Edith Wilson) at the Kiwanis Club where she, I am sure, gleefully served pancakes and sang songs with the Pancake Princess, who, in every photo that I’ve seen, is always a blonde white woman.
Looking at archival photos, I cannot put into words how incredibly unsettling it is seeing the happy, doting Aunt Jemima, the only black person among a sea of white faces. Even on a day of giving and service, an apron and a handkerchief manage to cement in our imaginations this belief that black women are born and bred to serve.
And in case that is not disturbing enough for you, those races at Disneyland I mentioned? Yeah. People raced while dressed as Aunt Jemima.
Your eyes are not deceiving you. The above image is, in fact, a group of white housewives dressed as Aunt Jemima running through the streets of the happiest place on earth.
I hope that you can still enjoy your free pancakes. I mean that sincerely despite my usual tone of sarcasm. Just remember the labor it takes to make this happen. Some overworked and underpaid cook at IHOP will make thousands of pancakes today. And your server has, no doubt, been standing on her feet for hours without so much as a break between tables.
So, give to charity if you feel so inclined. But, more importantly, remember to tip well and recognize that free pancakes happen at someone’s expense. Rather its Aunt Jemima or your local IHOP employee.
And now that it has been sufficiently ruined, I leave National Pancake Day here on the cutting room floor. At least until next year.