Perfect pancakes: LA columnist says 'that's what I fell in love with in Minnesota'
Russ Parsons, the food editor for the Los Angeles Times, was traveling from North Dakota to Duluth last summer when he stopped in Bemidji for a bite to eat.
Craving a taste of the local flavor, the man known to his readers as the "California Cook" stopped at a place with a name too irresistible to pass up - the Minnesota Nice Café.
Plus, the café was located a few steps from the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues, which he found amusing.
Parsons couldn't decide between the wild rice or blueberry pancakes, so he ordered both. After a few bites, he was enthralled that the addition of the oats added a complexity to the flavor.
So, he asked owner Jeanette Proulx for the recipe. When Proulx politely declined his request, he vowed he would "break her secret code" and come up with her pancake recipe.
Six months later, on Feb. 23, his column about the pancakes he tasted in Minnesota appeared in the Los Angeles Times, which has a weekday circulation of 723,181.
Overnight, the pancake recipe from the small, mom and pop café in Bemidji became famous.
"What really won me over was the nutty, coarse, slightly earthy base itself," Parsons wrote in his column. "These pancakes are terrific as is - they taste the way I always think whole-wheat will but somehow never does."
The pancake recipe wasn't that hard to figure out, Parsons wrote in his column, speculating its simplicity was what made it remarkable.
He started with his favorite basic pancake recipe - the "sour milk" pancakes from the 1943 "Joy of Cooking."
Instead of using "sour milk," he used buttermilk. Then he altered the basic batter in the recipe by adding rolled oats, which he had ground to a fine powder in a blender. He tried various ratios of ground oats to flour and learned the sweet spot was 1 1/3 cups of rolled oats to 1 cup of flour.
Sprinkling cooked wild rice to the batter was a no-brainer, he added.
"After all, that's what I fell in love with in Minnesota," he wrote.
The only thing Parsons said would have improved his pancake recipe was building a statue of Babe the Blue Ox in his backyard.
"Maybe I'll do that when it snows," he wrote.
Proulx said she did not know Parsons was the food editor for the Los Angeles Times until he asked her for her pancake recipe last summer.
"I said no," she said. "He said, 'Are you serious?' But I never give out my recipes."
Proulx said Parsons came close to discovering her pan-cake recipe, but there are differences. For example, she said, there is no sugar in her pancake recipe. Also, she uses the same measuring cup amount of rolled oats as she does flour.
But as much recognition the cafe has gotten in recent months, Proulx confessed the pancake recipe was not hers to begin with.
Six years ago, while she and her husband were building their house, Proulx said they were staying with friends.
"My friend made these pancakes one morning," Proulx said. "Normally I don't like pancakes, but I said 'Wow, these are really tasty. Could I get the recipe from you?' My friend said, 'Yes.'"
Later, as Proulx was in the planning stages of opening the Minnesota Nice Café, she asked her friend if she could use her pancake recipe at the café.
"She said, 'No problem,'" Proulx said.
Recently, Proulx said she has been asked by several customers for the pancake recipe.
"One guy offered me $1,000, but I said, 'No, you're not getting it,'" she said, smiling.
When it came to trying to remake the pancake recipe, Parsons wrote he tried his best, but was sure it was not exactly the same.
"Still, I've fixed them a half-dozen times since I developed the recipe ... it's now a weekend morning regular at my house," he said.
Parsons said the reason he and his wife took the road trip through northern Minnesota last summer was to accompany his 82-year-old father and his wife to North Dakota so they could see some of their high school friends.
Most of the time when he travels, Parsons said, he is not looking for "big-deal fan-cy places," but instead seeks restaurants that offer a sense of what the region is like, which is why he chose to stop at the Minnesota Nice Café.
When asked whether he would return to northern Minnesota, Parsons wrote, "That's a long way to go for pancakes, but I just might. It sounds silly, but the people really are nice."
Jeanette Proulx, owner of the Minnesota Nice Café in Bemidji, holds up a platter of pancakes, which were recently featured by Russ Parsons, food editor for the Los Angeles Times, who wrote a column about how much he enjoyed eating them.