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Is It Food, or Is It Foodiness? Let's Ask Laura Ingalls

05/21/2014 01:11 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2014
  • Erica Wides Host and co-creator, 'Let's Get Real with Erica Wides'

Picture a 9-year-old girl in the suburbs of Long Island, short for her age, sporting brown aviator glasses on her round face, cute but overweight by 1970s standards, wearing homemade pants with a fake patched-denim print, that sit high over her little belly. She's idly riding her little Schwinn bicycle up and down her suburban block, not exerting herself enough to burn off that belly, just peddling around. And on her chubby upper body, she's wearing a t-shirt, a little yellow and red t-shirt with a printed slogan across the front that her mom ordered through the mail, with 50 cents shipping and three box tops. She loves it so much she wears it as often as she can get away with. Her older sister would never wear a shirt like that, as she is a tiny, budding ballerina, hair always up in a bun and little denim cutoffs worn over her pink ballet tights. She's a classy ballerina type and therefore a cultured sophisticate, she wouldn't be caught dead in something as lowbrow as that shirt.

So the she rides her bike up and down the block, carrying on an internal conversation with her imaginary friend Laura Ingalls who has come to the 1970s from the 1870s to visit and see the future. And our little girl is explaining something about the t-shirt to Laura Ingalls right now, so let's hop into the Foodiness Time Machine and drop in and listen:

"Well Laura, girls today don't have to wear long calico dresses and bonnets, we can wear fake printed denim complete with fake patches and sneakers from a discount store and t-shirts. What's a t-shirt? It's what I'm wearing. What do the words on it mean? Well Laura, this t-shirt is printed with the three most important, defining words of late '70s America. No, not impeach Richard Nixon, no, not Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, anyway that's four, no this shirt says 'Leggo my Eggo.' What's an Eggo? Oh Laura, you guys from 100 years ago are really primitive. An Eggo is a waffle! From the freezer! It's like the root cellar but a lot colder. And no, my Ma doesn't make waffles in a cast iron waffle maker over the cookstove like yours... this is the future, we pull them out of the freezer and cook them in the toaster! And then we pour flavored, colored corn syrup all over them and eat them before school! And if someone tries to grab your toasted waffle out of your sticky paw, you shout 'Leggo My Eggo!' And the Eggo people will send you this very t-shirt for only 3 box-tops and 50 cents! And its mine! All mine! And I love it!"

So yes, I did grow up eating frozen waffles. We didn't have an electric waffle iron, and those frozen discs of white flour and sugar and preservatives were probably one of the main contributors to my chubby short frame. But we did make our own pancakes, everyone did back then, the idea of a frozen pre-made pancake hadn't been dreamed up yet by Foodiness, Inc. and actually, in our house, the frozen Eggos were eaten with real maple syrup, as we went to Vermont occasionally to visit my hippie aunt and uncle. We'd bring home a gallon of precious, real maple syrup, and I'd beg instead for the fake stuff. It was thicker and sweeter and more normal. I had enough working against me at the time socially and Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima would have eased the pain just a bit. Artificially flavored, colored corn syrup with fake maple and butter flavoring is what pancake syrup is, although I'm sure you all know that! I was always amazed by how many of my students didn't know that, when I was still teaching in culinary school.

The frozen Eggos were strictly for weekday breakfasts. We used to make real pancakes on the weekend from flour and eggs and stuff, and cook them on a griddle. You could have used Bisquick or pancake mix in a box, but as far as I know, there weren't frozen pre-made pancakes yet... or frozen pre-made pancake batter. It's like someone took a survey in the early '90s and asked people what the hardest thing to make was, and all they said pancakes? So voila, frozen batter and then frozen pancakes! Not having a waffle iron, OK, I get it. Not being able to cook a pancake? I don't get it. It's like the pan in pancake has become meaningless. You don't need a pan, to make a pancake, just a microwave. Pancakes have lost their sense of origin; just another Foodiness breakfast commodity in a shrinking, industrialized world.

I don't even really get the idea of eating pancakes or waffles, since they're basically just cake. I mean, what's cake? Flour, butter, eggs, sugar, baking powder, milk. Pancakes? Same. Waffles? Same. If you were a farmer or a field hand, a lumberjack or a cowboy, a blacksmith or a maple sugar guy, or even Amish, I'd get the need for a 1,000 calorie pile of flour and sugar for breakfast. You had work to do. But we consultants and social media analysts and insurance salesmen and radio hosts, not so much. Bill Cosby has a very old routine about letting his kids eat chocolate cake for breakfast, and then fighting with his wife about it. His point was that they were basically eating cake everyday anyway, in the form of pancakes or boxed cereals. He was right.

So flash forward 35 years or so, and I'm all grown up. Still the same height, but not quite as chubby anymore. Eerily similar glasses too... and that t-shirt now would be a hot item in many Brooklyn hipster hoods. But now I live in the city, in a formerly run-down neighborhood turned upscale hip, seemingly overnight. And while we have two custom perfumers and two custom bridal shops and an awesome ramen place and a craft beer store within 2 blocks, we also, oddly enough, have an IHOP. IHOP opened a few blocks away, in what's left of the lower-income shopping district that is rapidly up-scaling. And I pass IHOP on my way to the subway almost every day. And IHOP serves up a whole lotta breakfast cake across America. And that is what they're serving. Breakfast cake. But when the breakfast cake was just plain cake with flavored corn syrup it was bad enough. Now, of course, the breakfast cake is flavored, and not just with dyed-red strawberry dots, oh no, the breakfast cakes, are now CAKE flavored. So it's cake flavored cakes for breakfast across America. IHOP has red velvet pancakes, and jelly donut pancakes and cheesecake pancakes. So, as the pondering rabbis might ask, is it a pancake, or a cake? Is there a difference? No, there's no difference anymore in overfed, infantilized Foodiness America. You can eat a pile of red velvet cake for breakfast now, because it's called a pancake so it's socially acceptable. Or jelly donut pancakes? What are you? A donut or a pancake? Am I the only person here who thinks there's something wrong with this? And what the f*ck is red velvet anyway?

My Aunt Bella, of aforementioned Vermont hippie fame, now lives in Silver Spring, Md., and works in a school in a low-income neighborhood. The kids qualify for free breakfast and lunch. One of the breakfast items that the government provides for these very low-income kids is little bags of frozen, pre-made, tiny handheld pancakes and waffles. With syrup flavor baked right in. So the schools don't have to do anything but heat up the plastic bags (with all the BPA and toxins leaching into the tiny cakes) and hand them out. And the kids don't need to do anything but rip them open and eat them whole with their little chubby paws. No forks, no plates, no actual nutrition or FOOD, just little round cakes of white flour and sugar and chemicals, all totally subsidized by Uncle Sam, and directly contributing to the rapid rise in diabetes and obesity that 1st generation Americans are now developing. Not to mention teaching impressionable kids early on that eating little handheld cakes from a bag is perfectly fine, and even good for them! And guess who makes the little cakes? Effing Eggo, maker of the beloved t-shirt. How could I ever explain that to Laura? I can't even begin to construct the conversation that I'd have to have with her today, to even explain what has happened in her country in 100 years. How could I even begin? I just can't. She had a hard enough time with the frozen waffle concept. There was a lot of trauma, confusion, it got kind of ugly, and she hasn't been back since. That's the last time I rock that t-shirt. We're through, Eggo. It's over.