Why Rosa Parks put peanut butter in her pancakes
Pancakes are an oddly humanizing food. Everyone—well, most everyone—has a fondness for them. They’re sweet, filling, satisfying, utterly customizable, and achievable with a minimum of cooking acumen. Pancakes are ecumenically appealing (hence their omnipresence on many a cross-country presidential campaign trail) and economically friendly as well. Yet it’s somehow incredibly surprising and deeply endearing to find out that someone of great renown not only enjoyed eating pancakes, but making them as well. So much so, that they’ve left a benediction in the form of a personal recipe. Extra Crispy has lovingly detailed Jacqueline Kennedy’s particular pancake technique—purported to be a favorite of the president’s—but another historical pancake devotee has recently been revealed by the creator of The Sporkful food podcast.
Dan Pashman was combing through an archive of Rosa Parks’ personal documents, finally released by the Library of Congress after a 10-year legal battle, when he came upon a recipe for Featherlite Pancakes handwritten by Parks, herself, on the back of a banking envelope. Most people know her as the woman who refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama—a brave and defiant gesture that spurred the massive Montgomery Bus Boycott, and made her an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.
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Her 11 nieces and nephews, according to Pashman, knew Parks as their beloved “Auntie Rosa.” She had no children of her own, but loved to care for them and cooked so frequently that some of her recipes were included in niece Sheila McCauley Keys’ book Our Auntie Rosa: The Family of Rosa Parks Remembers Her Life and Lessons. But the pancake recipe stood out in particular to Pashman due to the inclusion of a particular rather non-traditional ingredient: peanut butter.
He shared the recipe with Keys, food writer and historian Nicole Taylor, and Library of Congress curator Adrienne Cannon, who agreed that while unusual, the peanut butter was a nod to Parks’ roots in Tuskegee, Alabama. There, George Washington Carver gained renown for his innovations in peanut farming, and helping Black farmers support themselves by growing them as a cash crop.
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Peanuts are also inextricably tied to Southern African American food traditions. Enslaved people who had eaten them in Africa brought the legumes along to America and grew them to supplement their cruelly meager diet. But there may have been a much simpler reason Parks included the curious ingredient in her pancakes. As niece her niece Deborah Ann Ross told Pashman, “She loved peanut butter. That’s probably what made her write this down.”
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Listen to the episode “Searching For Rosa Parks’ Pancakes” and make a batch while you’re at it. Feed yourself as you learn more about a great American hero, icon, aunt, cook, and human.