American soft power, that ability to achieve diplomatic objectives without threat or coercion, stems from many sources: aid packages, student exchanges, Katy Perry songs. I would like to make the case that the US State Department should add pancakes to the list.
What is pancakes?
It was our first morning with Nundraj, an adult mentor from Mauritius, whom we were hosting for the eight-day Pan-Africa Youth Leadership Program in Chicago. I asked Nundraj if he would like pancakes for breakfast. His response, mistaking the singulative noun for a collective, was a clear marker that he was entering uncharted territory.
I started to list the ingredients. But when I found myself trying to explain the difference between baking powder and baking soda I stopped. Just eat them, I commanded.
Nundraj complied. He took several bites without saying anything. Then he put down his fork. With an air of solemnity usually reserved for a funeral, he said, “These are wonderful. You call them pan…cakes?”
Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah
And thus, it began. Talking with the students in the program later that morning Nundraj inquired, with fake nonchalance, “So, what did you have for breakfast? Oh, cereal, interesting. Yes, well, I had pancakes.”
That night, just before I left for bed, Nundraj asked if we would be having pancakes again the next day. So we did. And, once again, he let everyone know.
By the third day the students were asking Nundraj about his breakfast before he had a chance to bring it up. The voyeurism reached its peak of ridiculousness on the last morning, with the students gathered around Nundraj, pestering him for the sordid details. Did you put syrup on them? Didja? Didja?
Johnny Appleseed, except with pancakes
All week Nundraj had been hounding me for the recipe. I finally got around to writing it down his last night here. He looked at it. How long before I flip it, he asked. I started to answer, but he handed the paper back to me and motioned for me to write it down. What kind of pan do you cook it in? More motioning and more writing. How hot should the pan be? I left to grab another sheet of paper.
Nundraj’s area of study at his university in Mauritius is sustainable development. He spent a good chunk of his time in Chicago trying to pick up as much information as possible about American initiatives and breakthroughs in the field. I can vouch for his enthusiasm on the subject and he was excited about how much he learned during his stay.
Before he left he had already contacted his advisor back home to begin scheduling a symposium on the green building technologies he had seen here. Tying it all together, Nundraj said grandly that the symposium will be held in the morning, “so that we may serve Pancakes.”
Early Friday morning, I walked him to the van waiting to take him to the airport. Thank you for everything, he said, but especially the pancakes. We laughed, even though both of us had been making variations of that same joke for the last four days.
As his van pulled away, I gently blew on the smoking tip of my spatula, twirled it once around my finger, and snapped it into the holster. Chalk up another win for Cowboy-Pancake Diplomacy.