by Julie Cummins
Pancakes! Yum! Who doesn’t love them with melted butter and maple syrup sliding over the sides? Pancakes are so popular that there is a National Pancake Day, a chain restaurant that features pancakes, and even pancake-eating contests.
Pancakes can have any flavor from chocolate chip to blueberry to buckwheat, and be any size, from silver dollar to hang-over-the-plate big. There are stacks of stories about jumbo-size pancakes and one in particular is a whopper.
Nothing stirs up the imagination like the tales of Paul Bunyan, the larger-than-life lumberjack. This great big man had a great big appetite for great big pancakes. He had his blacksmith make a griddle that was so big that it took 50 men with bacon slabs strapped to their feet to skate around the griddle just to grease it.
Could that be true? No, the folklore of Paul Bunyan is made up of exaggerated tall tales. But there is a true story about a REAL pancake that was so huge it made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Now that’s big!
It all began in the small town of Penn Yan in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. Like other small towns, there was one major business and that was the Birkett Mills. It is one of the largest buckwheat mills in the country and one of the oldest, continuously in business since 1797.
In 1987, the mill was still going strong when some of its workers got together to brainstorm fundraising ideas for the community – ideas that would also promote buckwheat flour. First, they needed a theme, something unique for a festival. Bingo! The answer was right in front of their noses. What did buckwheat flour make? Pancakes! They would hold a festival on the fairgrounds that would not only celebrate pancakes but would stir up an enormous pancake, one that would be the world’s largest.
Excited about the ideas the planners checked the Guinness Book of World Records to see if any such record was already in place. And there was, held by a man in Vermont in 1984. His pancake measured 20 feet in diameter and took a crane and helicopter to flip it.
Did that deter the Birkett men? Not one bit (or bite). They were determined not to be outdone, so they set a goal: the Penn Yan Buckwheat pancake would be even bigger – 24 feet! Could they do it?
So what’s the first thing you need to make an enormous pancake? A giant-sized griddle, of course. There was just one problem: you couldn’t buy a skillet that big in any store, so the Birkett men would make one! Work was well underway to construct a 24-foot-wide griddle when the festival organizers got terrible news: a new record had been set for the world’s largest pancake in March 1987 in Cheltenham, England. Oh no, what bad luck! Now what should they do?
Instead of feeling defeated, they were even more determined to outsize that record of 25 feet wide – one foot more than the pancake the festival workers were planning to make. So it was back to the drawing board to “stretch” the size of the griddle to 28 feet. Bigger than the existing record by 3 feet.
As the festival drew near, there was a flurry of preparations and great anticipation. With the griddle made, the next challenge was to get it to the festival site at the Yates County Fairgrounds. It had been forged 10 miles away, and moving it was no simple matter since it weighed half a ton. It was 2 feet wider than the road! The only way to move it was with a crane. That meant closing roads and stopping traffic at nighttime. You can bet that a crowd of people gathered to gawk at the incredible sight.
The crane was so enormous that it could lift 75 tons. It would position the griddle and flip the pancake once it was cooked. Folks immediately dubbed it “The World’s Largest Pancake Flipper.” Before the griddle could be maneuvered into place, a fire had to be built to cook the pancake. Cement blocks were placed in a wide circle to support the griddle and to contain the fire. It took truckloads of wood, nine face cords to be exact, to cover the pit. Whew, that’s a lot of logs and a lot of heat!
Next, it was time for the pancake batter – all 800 pounds of it. A brand new cement mixer was driven into place to mix the batter with water. To keep the pancake from sticking to the pan, 50 gallons of cooking oil were poured onto the surface and spread. Once it was oiled, the cement mixer backed up to the pit and given the signal, the batter poured down the cement chute onto the griddle. Workers smoothed out the batter with specially designed stainless steel trowels to make sure the batter was evenly spread. Then came the hard part; waiting.
Newspaper, radio, and TV crews were on hand to record the madcap event and a crowd of 35,000 to 40,000 people had gathered. Even though the weather forecast was good, people worried that something could go wrong, like rain. If it did, the pancake would fall apart and end up as mush. But as September 27, 1987, dawned, it was a bright and sunny day. To meet the requirements and break the record, the pancake needed to stay in one piece and be edible.
Folks say a watched pot never boils. In this case, a watched griddle seemed to take forever. People jostled one another to stake out the best place to witness the historic happening.
Volunteers constantly checked the progress to make sure the bottom of the pancake was properly cooked so that when it was time to flip it, it would remain in one piece. When it looked done enough, a second griddle was placed over the lower griddle by the crane. This was the scariest part. Due to the size of the equipment, the flipping process had not been tested beforehand. People held their breath and the press zoomed in.
Given the signal, the crane operator began to slowly pick up the griddle. For what seemed like hours, the onlookers watched as the griddle dangled and wobbled in the air. As the lines on the crane began to tighten, the griddle began to flip. The crowd began to roar as the griddle picked up speed and successfully turned over on the other side. Hooray, they did it!
The Birkett Mills and the townspeople of Penn Yan had broken the record for having made the world’s largest pancake! Twenty-eight feet across in diameter and 1-inch thick, it was big enough to feed more than 7,000 people, with quite a lot left over. Pieces of the pancake were sold for a dollar.
You probably wonder how it tasted. One man described it as not too good because it wasn’t evenly cooked. But the rules said it just had to be edible, not tasty!
And that’s the story of the world’s largest pancake and how it made a small town famous. Is anything left of the pancake festival besides photographs? Yes, the original griddle stands upright against the wall of the Mill on Main Street – proof of the world record. If you visit Penn Yan, you can have your picture taken in front of it.
The next time you sit down at a table to eat a stack of pancakes, think about the enormous one made in 1987 in Penn Yan that fed 7,200 people, and was the equivalent of 21,600 regular pancakes. Maybe the batter that made your pancakes came from Birkett Mills flour and you just might be eating a taste of history.