It’s the type of tub you could lose a small child in. Waist-deep, wide as a hockey goal, and filled with pancake batter. There are two of them, each sixty gallons. The evening before, after the dinner shift, two men filled them up: thirty-one and a half gallons of whole milk, twenty-four gallons of buttermilk, 180 pounds of eggs. Forty-two pounds of sugar, 390 pounds of flour, six gallons of shortening. And don’t forget the salt — two and a quarter pounds of salt. And six gallons of vanilla extract. It’s just after midnight now in the kitchen at West Point. A man named Wally, gray hair tucked under his white paper cook’s cap, adds thirty pounds of baking powder — it must go in closer to cooking time or the batter will ferment. He is methodical and trustworthy — been working this job for thirty-four years. He finishes at 2:30, four and a half hours before more than four thousand cadets will converge in the mess hall for breakfast. They’ll come all at once, and they’ll eat all at once. In less than ten minutes. Wally has a lot of pancakes to cook.
The kitchen extends beyond view in every direction, an industrial steel landscape that could be the set of a gory horror film — deep fryers the size of minivans, dunk tanks of boiling water, mixers with paddles you could canoe with. John Fitzsimons, the food-service officer, watches over his team of sixteen cooks. He’s worked at West Point for twenty-four years, sets the menu, orders all the food. He wears loose-fitting khakis, button-down shirts that balloon, and scuffed black leather shoes. He’s laconic, has a habit of looking down as if always in private thought. “Just simple,” he says, explaining how he feeds the masses. “We try to break it down to the simplest level.”
There are advantages to feeding the Army. John knows exactly how many pancakes the cadets will eat. He knows how much butter, fat, and salt to use — Army calorie regulations. (All recipes are approved by a staff dietician.) There are no surprises, no uninvited guests. Just a task: Cook eight thousand pancakes in three hours. Just simple: Those sixty-gallon tubs of batter are divided into thirty-gallon bowls that are placed near the grills. The cooks then dunk and fill one-gallon pitchers, off-loading the batter into the half-gallon pitchers they use to hand-pour each pancake, carefully laying them out in grids of forty-eight. Wally works methodically, left to right, first pouring a batch, then starting over at the beginning to flip. To serve by seven o’clock, Wally must flip three hundred pancakes per hour.
As they come off the flattop, the pancakes are placed on serving dishes, fifteen per, then rushed over to the forty-eight double-oven-sized warmers on the far end of the room. Each warmer has slots for ten trays of food, enough to feed ten tables of ten cadets. And each warmer has a numbered spot in the mess hall, so once the cadets arrive, the waiters will have to walk only a few feet to serve each table.
There is no yelling — no talking really. Just flipping and carrying. Clangs as trays slide into warmers, and metallic buckles as warmer doors are swung shut. Most of the cooks have been on the job for five, ten, even twenty years. Most wear pink earplugs.
Darren, tasked today with loading the warming carts, tells John they’re full. Instantly, John calls it: Stop grilling. Spatulas down. The little remaining batter is wheeled away. Scrapers and huge hoses come out, and in twenty minutes the griddles and workspace are clean, the residue of eight thousand pancakes wiped away and washed down the drain.
The waiters take over. They spill into the room: about two football fields wrapped in wood and stone walls lined with oil portraits of military figures, draped in state and Revolutionary flags, and crowned with stained-glass windows that depict giant battles. There are six wings in all, each filled with tables of ten, 465 in total, meticulously set with plates, glasses, coffee cups, silverware, and bottles of every condiment imaginable — syrup, ketchup, hot sauce, peanut butter, salad dressing, sugar. Having everything ready and at hand is key to the ten-minute breakfast.
In they trickle wearing boots, camo pants, and black fleece jackets. Many yawn, some carry notebooks. This is the same drill, the same mandatory breakfast every weekday. Underclassmen gather yogurt, milk, fruit, and Gatorade bars for the table from plastic rolling bins the size of playpens while upperclassmen wait bleary-eyed behind their chairs and the waiters stand ready at their assigned warming carts.
It comes, loud and gruff and on time, as it has for decades:
“Attention. Take seats!“
There is no rush. No running. No fighting over syrup or silverware. The warmer doors swing open, and in seconds the trays of pancakes and sausage emerge, warm and ready. The cadets eat determinedly, quietly, chewing slowly. Some pass on the pancakes in favor of cereal. An upperclassman passes on everything — he’s facedown on the table asleep. But it’s all orderly. Controlled and methodical chaos. About ten minutes after the cadets take their seats, most of the trays are empty, some sausage lingering, and the voice booms once more: “Cadets rest!“
And they are gone.
The Appendix: West Point Pancakes
The secret to the pancake recipe used at West Point is the combination of cake flour for maximum fluff and bread flour for an extra boost of protein. It’s so good, you may want to make the full 8,000-pancake batch, which takes 1,440 eggs and 390 pounds of flour. Or try this:
Makes 8 to 10. (For the full 8,000-pancake batch, use the amount in parentheses.)
⅓ cup buttermilk (24 gallons)
2 eggs (1,440)
½ cup whole milk (31 ½ gallons)
1 ½ tbsp vanilla extract (6 gallons)
1 ½ tbsp sugar (42 lbs)
¼ tsp salt (2 ¼ lbs)
1 tbsp baking powder (30 lbs)
1 ¼ cup cake flour (300 lbs)
⅓ cup bread flour (90 lbs)
1 ½ tbsp Whirl shortening (6 gallons)
1. In mixer at medium speed, combine buttermilk, eggs, milk, vanilla, sugar, salt, and baking powder for at least 30 seconds.
2. Slowly add the cake flour. Whip out the lumps.Then add the bread flour. Once well combined, add the Whirl shortening.
3. Pour into six-inch disks on oiled, medium-hot pan.
By: Tyler Cabot
4 March 2011