The Secret Location of New England’s Most Perfect Pancakes
by Elisabeth Donnelly
Fall is the prettiest, most life-affirming season in New England, a time when the weather is clear and crisp, the trees are changing color, the sky is that bottomless blue, and Mr. Autumn Man has his sweater on. Now that I don’t live in New England, kicked out like a Salem witch forced to swim in the pond, I spend my fall hours on the lookout for the greatest Fake New England things on offer, things that remind me of the platonic ideal of what is New England in my head: activities like watching “Gilmore Girls” repeats, going apple picking, eating cider donuts, and frolicking on hayrides. I look forward to the day that I can take a weird photo of a pumpkin-resembling toddler toddling amongst the pumpkins, Anne Geddes-style. Fake New England is a style that I aspire to; after all, real New England is filled with frosty Yankees who look at you askance if you’re from away.
(A short “Gilmore Girls” aside: Watching that show on repeat embodies the state of mind that is Fake New England, as Amy Sherman-Palladino’s girlie masterpiece offers the fantasy of a festival-throwing quirky community where everyone knows and cares about each other, and the sort of reference-spouting leads that imply a love of reading and learning endemic to the area. That show couldn’t be more New England-ish if it had cast Jonathan Richman as the town troubadour.)
But the greatest gift that fall has to offer is this: it’s the time of year where pancakes taste their best, and they taste their best when eaten in New England. Who knows why — Puritan historians, sound forth! But it is a truth. And in the past few years, I’ve been conducting my own tests of the best places to get pancakes in the region, hitting up diners from the Catskills to Vermont, and I’ve found the most glorious place to get pancakes in the history of New England: Elmer’s Store, of Ashfield, Massachusetts.
Elmer’s Store, like the best sort of discoveries, was a happy accident. It began when my boyfriend Stu saw a mention of Elmer’s in Yankee Magazine, category: Best Pancakes. Even better, Elmer’s Store was on the way to one of the other best places in the world: The Montague Bookmill in Montague, Massachusetts. So we made a day of it, taking the drive over to Ashfield, winding our way through the Berkshires and honing in on the small town.
Ashfield seems to be the size of one small block. Its population is a little under 2,000 — so just a few more people than the collected cast of “Gilmore Girls.” And it’s to say that it looks a little bit like that show’s Stars Hollow (or Stars Hollow looks a little bit like it), with its 1800s-era buildings advertising things like “hardware,” and its Ye Olde Fire Station, right next to the church. As you stroll around, it also becomes apparent that someone in Ashfield is the town “calligrapher” or sign-maker, since the signs all share the same looping script. It seems like the sort of community where everybody knows your name, and where every season is marked by a steady rotation of Events and Festivals, whether it’s the annual Fall Festival or the Film Festival, now in its sixth year, which, according to The Ashfield News, had winners like “The Recent Excitement in Ashfield,” “Cynthia Elbaum: A Life In Pictures,” “Al’s Thrifty Country Wisdom,” and “ABC Rap.” (Had this film been entered, it would likely have been a contender, too.)
Several doors down from the library and next to the fire station, Elmer’s Store is an old general store, established in 1835 (as the sign outside announces), with big picture windows that look out over a nice big porch. Walking inside, the place is bright and cheery, the walls painted a warm yellow and hanging with local art (so many horse portraits). A very nearly happy-looking take on “American Gothic” sits behind the counter. When we arrived, the proprietor, Nan Parati — a New Orleans transplant, and I have no doubt that’s part of the friendly magic of the place — was there, shuttling people to tables and checking in on her customers. Sitting down at a table, we watched as others shuffled in like old friends, chatting and saying hi. Farmers, some young with dirt-splattered pants, and some old with epic grey beards winding down their chest, stopped by to deliver goods to the general store, which takes up the back of the main room. It bills itself as an “old timey natural foods grocery,” and it’s got good like yogurt made from the cows in the next town over, local maple syrup, and a western Massachusetts brand of kombucha — you know the mix. It all looked pretty delicious. But what was most striking about it was the people in the place, a mix of tourists and locals, and the comfortable way they fell into conversations, about the weather and the Red Sox and what was going on in their lives.
It was as I was sitting there, observing this, that I first made the “Gilmore Girls” connection. Because that palpable feeling of community made me think that Elmer’s store is, basically, the Ashfield equivalent of Luke’s Diner. But instead of a diner-cum-hardware store, it’s a diner-cum-grocery/art gallery. It’s a lovely sort of mash-up of purposes.
But none of this would be worth mentioning if the pancakes weren’t killer. We had high expectations, as the folks at Yankee Magazine are clearly some discerning pancake eaters. There are pancakes throughout New England that get the job done, providing a fine base for butter and maple syrup. How much better could these be? Well, lots! Elmer’s pancakes are the platonic ideal of pancakes: effortlessly light and fluffy on the tongue. They are a good solid pinch-high in comparison to the average pancake, whipped together from some secret concoction of fresh and presumably local ingredients, with apples and pecans if you please. The buttermilk makes the pancakes sweet, the velvety texture means that they melt, pleasantly, in the mouth. They don’t hit you like a ton of bricks. They don’t even need fresh butter or maple syrup to be good. The pancakes are also — and this is crucial — the right size, taking up most, but not all, of the plate, the size of a small hand outstretched.
Whereas usually when you eat pancakes out, they can suffer from too much bulk. Four to five giant pancakes will arrive at your table stacked on a plate, tasting slightly like aluminum from baking soda so they need to be drowned in syrup and butter in order to be consumed. They leave you feeling like a glutton, belly poking out, sluggish and slow.
But it’s impossible to feel draggy upon leaving Elmer’s Store. Whether it’s the cheerful yellow walls with their horse portraits, the sense of community, the bottomless cup of coffee (strong and smooth and way better than any gross Dunkin’s coffee-esque water), it feels like a fever dream concocted from the Fake New England Fantasies that reside in all of us. Elmer’s Store is so successfully Fake New England it’s like I imagined it — or it burst, fully formed, out of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s head, curing her headache — even if it’s located in the oft-disappointing real New England. A visit there feels like proof that small-time homey community can thrive. I’m not afraid to blow up Elmer’s Store’s excellence in this case: it’s still a drive to get to, depending on where you are. However, it’s worth the drive, every bit of it — the hunt for a good pancake is the purest of road trip prompts. If you feel the need to see trees shake their golden leaves and pick up a bag of cider donuts this weekend, this is where to fortify yourself for the journey.
Elisabeth Donnelly was always #teamDaveRygalski.