Flapjacks in Maggie Valley, North Carolina
“So what have you got there?” my waitress asks, turning over the coffee mug on my table.
“Papers to grade,” I say.
It’s the end of the academic year, and a stack of Shakespeare papers divides me from the summer. They must be graded, and I have come to Joey’s Pancake House to accomplish this. The small mountain town of Maggie Valley isn’t far from Asheville, but it’s a different kind of place. The town’s visitors are mostly bikers (of the motorcycle variety). Dinner isn’t farm-to-table; it’s bloody prime rib and potato. Breakfast is pancakes.
A pancake house is a perfect place to work, particularly on a rainy May day. The constant movement of people, the clanging of dishes, the bright lights, the endless coffee. I spend a lot of time in libraries, and they can be too silent. If you shift in your chair or rummage around for a pen, you disturb the universe. But this isn’t the case in a pancake house, a place so comfortable that its name assures you that you’re home. It’s a house, but with pancakes.
Joey’s opened in 1966 and replaced its sign just before its 50th anniversary. The old sign proclaimed JOEY’S PANCAKE HOUSE on a slightly yellowed and weathered background. Below, “& Restaurant” was rendered in cursive, as an afterthought. First, Joey’s is a pancake house, and then it is a restaurant. The new sign is similar, but it depicts a stack of syrupy pancakes and notes, “Since 1966.” The old sign was the past; the new sign looks back on the past.
The dining room feels timeless, or perhaps just out of time, with its wagon wheel chandeliers, wood paneling, green gingham window valances, and green padded booths. In an adjacent waiting room, people read over posters for spring festivals and visiting preachers.
My table is set with everything I could need: a caddy of Smucker’s Concord Grape and Strawberry Jelly packets, salt and pepper, sugar, syrup (two bottles), and a small dish of disposable white plastic creamers. The menu is printed on a paper placemat. Pancake house menus are plenitude embodied: eggs and omelets, French toast, waffles, breakfast meats, and starches – grits, hash browns, toast, and biscuits. Plain pancakes or pancakes with strawberries, blueberries, pecans, bananas, chocolate chips, or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Seemingly endless options.
Joey’s pancakes are pancakes of the South. There are pancake houses all over the country, but I didn’t have much experience with them until I moved to North Carolina, so to me, they are the South. My father made buckwheat pancakes when I was growing up, but these were healthy, California pancakes. They weren’t topped with a scoop of whipped butter.
My breakfast arrives on heavy, unbreakable diner dishes, cross-hatched by countless knives and forks: pancakes, two eggs over-medium, and a slab of ham. I set one of the eggs on top of the pancakes and puncture the yoke with my fork. And I read through my stack of papers, endeavoring to write legible comments and then placing each finished paper on another stack. When I accidentally spill coffee on one, I write an arrow next to the brown splotch and scribble, Oops sorry coffee. The stack of finished papers grows.
Customers pay at the cash register at Joey’s. I buy a mug, too – something to take home. When I walk back to my table to leave a tip, I see that it has already been cleared and reset, with new, spotless paper placemat menus. A paper placemat menu is only yours: you drip egg yolk and syrup on it, and then it is thrown away.
I survey the parking lot, trying to remember where my car is before I run out into the rain. Down the street, a large plastic bear stands guard in front of a souvenir shop, reared up on his hind legs, his mouth open and his paws outstretched. I pass him as I drive out of town, and it feels a little like driving into summer.