The Taste Bud: The great pancake conundrum

Pretty much everyone loves pancakes. Why is that? What’s so special about pancakes? If you think about it, it’s just glorified bread.

Maybe it’s the stuff you can put on and in them — you can go low-key and just use syrup and butter, or you can get creative and add pretty much whatever you want, like fruit or powdered sugar or chocolate chips. Or mustard. (OK, not mustard. Just seeing if you were paying attention.)

And besides that, pancakes just seem so Americana. Really, what could be more American than pancakes? You know, besides baseball. And jazz. And federal deficits. On second thought, there is a restaurant called International House of Pancakes, so maybe they aren’t as all-American as I thought. Hmm.

But one truism remains, and it is this: Restaurant pancakes made on the griddle always seem better than pancakes made in a skillet at home. Not sure why, but even today, on the rare occasion when I opt for pancakes, they have to come from a restaurant.

It may be because my dad used to make pancake batter without milk or eggs — he would just mix Aunt Jemima pancake mix with water and cook them in the skillet. Not sure why he did that, but he also never put syrup on his — he ate his pancakes with butter only, because he doesn’t like sweets. Pretty gross.

Anyway, a friend recently told me about Mariann Travel Inn and Restaurant in Scottsburg, Ind. (about 30 miles north of Louisville by way of I-65) and their legendary pancakes. Sounded like a Taste Bud to me, so the girlfriend and I loaded her son into the car on a recent Saturday morning and headed north.

Mariann opened in 1969, and by the looks of the quaint little place, it hasn’t changed a bit since the day the first batch of pancakes was made. It almost feels like you are hanging out in someone’s basement in the early ’70s, with the brick bar, leather-padded swivel seats, and the laid-back, home-style décor. I kept looking for a lava lamp, but didn’t see one anywhere.

Regardless of all that, I’m here to confirm that the pancakes are better than anything you’ve ever had in anyone’s basement.

For just $3.99, you can get a short stack, which consists of two griddle cakes with butter and syrup. Doesn’t sound like much, but the cakes at Mariann are plate-sized, thick and fluffy — meaning that it’s a safe bet they actually used eggs, butter and milk in their batter. (Sorry, Dad.)

And even though it was only two pancakes, it was plenty of food — neither Cynthia nor I could finish our breakfasts. Honestly, for four bucks, it’s quite a meal.

“How could someone eat three of those?” she wondered aloud.

She noted that one of the best features is that the edges got ever-so-slightly crispy, while the center stayed fluffy. And the cakes were browned just right on both sides, like only a griddle can do. We both agreed they were worth the hype.

But here’s where we disagreed: I went old school, with lots of butter and syrup, but Cynthia opted to add peanut butter to her pancakes. Er, what? Yeah, I grew up a peanut butter fiend, but I never put it on pancakes. That stuff belongs on a Townhouse cracker, or maybe on Wonder bread. Or smeared on a chocolate bar.

But Mariann embraces the weird pancake toppings like a champ. On the menu, you can choose from a variety of extras, such as the aforementioned peanut butter, strawberries, blueberries, pecans, chocolate chips and blackberries.

Pecans? The heck? But really, it could be quite the conundrum when ordering your pancakes. You can get bacon on the side, but can you get bacon on the pancakes? I’d absolutely be in favor of meat pancakes.

I did try a bite of Cynthia’s peanut butter pancakes — not bad, but I decided to stick with the old-school style on which I grew up … with the bacon on the side, even though it was tempting to create my own pancake topping. Quite the conundrum, indeed.

Mariann offers a host of other items on its menu as well, including some home-cooking favorites like burgers, country-fried steak, sandwiches and the like. They also have some home-style desserts, like peach and blackberry cobblers and apple pie. Perhaps best of all, they serve breakfast all day, so you can have pancakes for dinner if you want. With peanut butter. And pecans. And mustard.

But you’ll have to bring your own lava lamp.