Monday, July 02, 2007

My Canada Day Pancake Nightmare

(In lieu of having celebrated this Canada Day in any particular fashion, I bring you a flashback to Canada Day 2004.)

Soon after I volunteered to work at the International Friendship Festival in Himeji Japan, I began receiving strange phone calls. The callers would inform me that they had passed my number onto someone else, and then that someone would call later with a similar message. Finally, a Mrs. Ito reached me and informed me that I would be cooking pancakes at the Festival's Canadian food booth. The Canadianness would be featured in that pancake accessory, I assumed, the old stand-by, maple syrup.
I tried explaining to Mrs. Ito that having me cook was a bad idea. I once messed up a recipe with three steps by doing them in the wrong order. I have a dangerous faith in ingredient substitution. My cooking is perfectly abominable in every single way. I did have other skills that could probably put me to better use. But Mrs. Ito wasn't having any of it. She arranged to meet me the next day back at the International Centre.
When we met, her smile was larger than her face, but she pretended to not understand English when I tried to protest the pancakes. There was no turning back, no matter how hard I attempted retreat. Mrs. Ito instructed me that I would face a "cooking rehearsal" on July 1st, the following week. That I was to come bearing ingredients. I left her that day, confused and annoyed.
I found half a packet of pancake mix left over in the cupboard from Shrove Tuesday, and I bought a cheap bottle of Japanese pancake syrup the morning of my rehearsal. I even remembered egg and oil, which I thought was impressive. I did wonder if I should have been making the pancakes from scratch, but I felt so concurrently coerced and put-out that I decided that if Mrs. Ito didn't like it, frankly, she could stuff it.
But I just had this feeling. A fear of a cooking rehearsal far too strong to be sensible. What could possibly go wrong— just me and Mrs. Ito in a little kitchen? However my apprehension was particularly nagging, so I asked my then-boyfriend Stuart to come with me, and because he feared I was having a nervous breakdown, he reluctantly consented.
Immediately upon arrival at the International Centre as scheduled, I seriously contemplated turning around and sprinting home, but we had already been spotted. We entered the kitchen where we were greeted by sixteen women seated waiting at a table, and they expressed their happiness at attending this wonderful Canadian lunch today. And I desired to be swallowed by the air.
I reluctantly took my "ingredients" from my backpack. "Mix?" they said, evidently a similar word in English and Japanese. Thirty two eyes examined the mix curiously. Much conversation ensued. Presumably about how half a packet of pancake mix would feed sixteen expectant lunchers. After a hasty conference among themselves, it was decided that everyone would have a tiny pancake. So there remained the issue of my inability to cook, but that was ok, mostly because Stuart did most of it. Chatter between the women continued throughout the cooking, and in spite of their big smiles, I didn't get the impression they were singing my praises.
And the worst was still to come. It was time for the maple syrup, freshly tapped from a Japanese factory. I quickly tore off the label, and when Mrs. Ito asked if it was Canadian maple syrup, I lied and said yes. Clearly the International Friendship Festival Committee were not convinced.
It was the wrong colour, they thought. "Is it honey?" the women kept asking me. That it truly was maple syrup was some form of rightousness. I retained my resolve and the women stopped questioning me. However their own conversation continued in Japanese, smattered with exclaimations of the word "maple" and several audible question marks.
When dinner was served and we all sat down to eat our coin sized pancake. The pancakes were good, and the women were very friendly and someone had found some cookies to make the meal go further. I told them that today was Canada's birthday, and their all applauded. And then I remembered a bag of Canadian Flag pins in my purse, like a treasure in my hold. I passed them out, and the mood softened a bit at that. The pins lent a certain authenticity to my act. Not only was I an authentic idiot, but a Canadian one too.
Conversation was awkward, mostly consisting of people pointing and laughing at Stuart and I. They talked to me a bit about the Friendship Festival, which I, miraculously, was still supposed to be attending. They asked if I could get some Canadian flags and various paraphernalia for the Canada booth and I told them I could find out if the embassy could provide us with something. Somebody translated into Japanese that I had many friends at the embassy who would supply us with Canadian things, and at that point I began to see how these sorts of misunderstandings get started.