Saving the Planet With Pancakes

But MoonPies and orange dressing are just for fun

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Photo: The Land Institute/Kernza

These Pancakes Might Protect the Planet

By Julia Hotz

The Land Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization based in Salina, Kansas, has new product for making bread, pancakes, pasta, cereals, and beer. It’s pretty hopeful about this new grain, which some think is an ally in the fight against climate change.

The Land Institute has been researching the "10,000-year-old problem of agriculture" for four decades. The problem in question? Annual crops - which account for 70% of the human population’s food calories, but die after one year - devastate the ecosystem in each stage of growth, from seed to weeds. To successfully harvest annual grains, farmers disrupt the natural ecosystem through hoes, plows, fertilizer, and herbicide. This process depletes the soil of its nutrients, and requires repeating each year. 

Enter Kernza, one of the modern world’s first commercially available perennial grains harvested for human consumption.

Perennial crops - the earth’s original source of nutrition - do not require annual replanting. And Kernza has been bred to have especially robust roots (they look like giant, hairy carrot sticks beneath the ground) while the grasses reach several feet above ground. “This helps minimize soil erosion, and maximize the use of nutrients in the soil,” says Kevin Murphy, Assistant Research Professor at Washington State University in this short, now decade-old video on the science behind perennial wheat. Adding that the perennial harvesting method offers greater nutritional value, requires fewer fossil fuels, and shows promise for farmers in need of a more stable yield, Murphy calls for greater investment in the process, referencing a paper predicting the near future of marketable perennial grains. 

One decade later, that future has arrived. I tried my first Kernza pancakes in September 2018 at a dusty barn barn breakfast at The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival. Though the slightly less sweet cakes are perhaps a more mealy cousin to the traditional fluffy counterpart, the result is nutty, wholesome, and delicious. 

Kernza flour is not yet widely available on supermarket shelves. But climate-conscious snackers can still find the grain used throughout the country: Long Root Pale Ale at retailers in California, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest, a sweet treat at the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and pasta at Dumpling and Strand vendors around the Twin Cities.

There’s still plenty of work to do to fully overtake the annual grain market. But as TLI founder Wes Jackson says, “If your life's work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.” 🌾

Photo: MoonPie

A Balanced Diet Since 1917

I’ve had a life-long affair with marshmallows. I like Peeps and s’mores and I can’t resist Snoballs. But nothing even approaches the glory of the MoonPie.

Marshmallow cookies span the globe. In Australia, there’s the Chocolate Royal. In Canada, they enjoy the Whippet. South Korea makes the Choco Pie. They’re all copies of the original American MoonPie from Tennessee, created circa 1917.

It’s not a Mallomar or a wagon wheel. A MoonPie is its own species of cookie: two soft, round grahams, a marshmallow middle, and a thin chocolate coating. Take the word cookie liberally. The texture is soft on soft. The MoonPie is more of a graham sponge with a chewy dryness that crumbles in your mouth and on to your front seat of your car.

The five main flavors are chocolate, vanilla, banana, strawberry, and salted caramel. Orange and coconut make seasonal appearances during Mardi Gras, but the original MoonPie is my preferred gas station snack.

A homemade moon pie? I’ve seen it done. I’ll never forget it, but I’m gonna try. Moonpies aren’t meant to be homemade or gourmet. They’re meant to be acquired from a gas station or a vending machine, slightly squished from their mode of transport, and washed down with some cola, like Big Bill Lister’s song says:

On the drive home from my last meditation retreat, I got a hankering for my favorite marshmallow confection. After being pumped full of serenity and silence for 10 days and consuming simple vegetarian food made by Buddhists practicing loving kindness, I needed corn syrup, for balance. A virtue.

Fresh or stale, MoonPies have the same texture. That’s what I like in a snack: reliability. -Diana Dinerman

A Dressing, Beloved in the Midwest, That Isn’t Ranch

The bright orange Dorothy Lynch salad dressing is tangy, sweet, and just a little spicy; it’s perfect for taco salad, sloppy joes, and other dishes of the sort you’d bring to a church dinner. Growing up, I spent many happy Friday nights during Lent in our Catholic church’s basement, eating fried fish and salads topped with Dorothy Lynch, the dressing’s orange color contrasting with the pale-green pieces of limp iceberg lettuce and tiny purple flecks of raw cabbage. 

Throughout the late 1940s, hairdresser Dorothy Lynch and her husband Art ran the American Legion Club restaurant in the small central Nebraska town of St. Paul. The club, which is still operating today, is part of a national network for veterans, though anyone can dine there.

Lynch wasn’t satisfied with the French-style dressings available at the time, so she began experimenting. She tinkered with her formula, serving the latest iteration to diners and asking for their opinions. Unlike true French-style dressings, which are oil-based, Lynch’s recipe starts with tomato soup.

The homemade dressing became so popular that diners stole full bottles off the club’s tables and brought containers to fill up and take home. The Lynches decided to produce the dressing for retail, and grocery stores started selling glass bottles of it in the early 1950s. Demand just kept growing. Unable to keep up, the Lynches sold their business in 1964. 

Dorothy Lynch dressing still holds a special place in many Nebraskans’ hearts. Attend any high school sporting event in Nebraska to this day and you’re sure to find it drizzled atop “walking tacos,” which are essentially deconstructed tacos served in individually-sized bags of Fritos or Doritos. (Yes, like Frito pie.)

It’s now available online and in a growing number of states, but people still stock up while visiting relatives in Nebraska. Copycat recipes are all over the internet, but to this day no one knows exactly how the sauce is made. -Sarah Kuta

This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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