First Person

August 29, 2014 3:23 pm

First Person: ‘I make educational pancakes’

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With a condiment squeeze bottle and a good non-stick pan, Nathan Shields has made about 1,000 – from a portrait of Newton to nudibranchs

I began making pancake art for my kids in 2011. I started out with child-friendly images like trucks and jungle animals and, after exhausting those, I moved into topics that I found interesting. I’ve done cephalopods, butterflies and protozoa but my favourite is the nudibranchs, a weird group of sea creatures that breathe through the frilly structures on their back.

We usually make the pancakes every weekend. It’s sort of a tradition now. When my family moved to Washington state two years ago, we did local wildlife, trees, mushrooms, wildflowers. We made some slugs since we’ve been battling them in our garden, and ended up learning quite a bit about them: there are lots of different types, and they’re all hermaphrodites.

To make the pancakes, I draw the picture with the batter straight on to the pan, starting with the shadows and then filling in the highlights. The shading was a quick discovery. Putting certain parts in the pan first to make them darker was the first obvious way to vary the colour. You have to be quick, though. If you take too long, it’ll all turn the same shade of golden brown.

When I began, I used a spoon to drip on the batter. Now I use a condiment squeeze bottle – it’s the secret weapon. A good non-stick pan is also pretty important. I love mine. I use it only for pancakes, and I keep it out of reach of my wife. She’s not a fan of pancakes, so she will sleep in on pancake day and then make herself some eggs.

Nathan Shields serves a Benjamin Franklin pancake to Gryphon and Alice©Andrew Waits

Nathan Shields serves a Benjamin Franklin pancake to Gryphon and Alice

I used to be a high-school math teacher. But in 2011 my family moved to Saipan in the Mariana Islands for a year so my wife could get experience as a nurse midwife – I found myself in charge of the kids for the first time. Gryphon was three and Alice was one, and the pancakes just came about as something fun to do. They were well received, although the audience wasn’t very picky.

Portraits are definitely the most difficult. I’ve tried making a lot of mathematicians and scientists, just for my own entertainment. I’ve done Newton, Kepler, Einstein, Mandelbrot, Descartes, Darwin and others. I’m still not confident that when I flip one over it’s going to look like what I planned. It’s always practice. Often I’ll have a plate full of deformed faces, and I’ll have to spend the morning eating misshapen Newtons.

You’ve also got to keep in mind that when you flip the pancake, it will be a mirror image. For most pancakes that doesn’t matter but, last weekend, I wanted to make Luke Skywalker battling Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor monster. When I flipped Luke over, he ended up looking away from the monster, totally oblivious. So he got eaten.

A rockfish pancake made by Nathan Shields©Andrew Waits

A rockfish

Natural forms are my favourite to do, since they’re easier to get on the first shot. I did a whole cephalopod series as a Mother’s day treat, when my mom was visiting. We did a vampire squid, a chambered nautilus, a common cuttlefish, a coconut octopus and a few others. I don’t think she’s a fan of cephalopods particularly but maybe now she finds them a bit more delicious. Another recent one that the kids were really interested in was human parasites: tapeworm, hookworm, bedbug, crab louse, leech, tick, liver fluke. There’s no limit to the creativity.

The next thing I’m going to try out is a pendulum above the frying pan – it will drop the batter and make a geometric pattern. The kids don’t know that plan yet. Their favourites are the Angry Birds that I flip through the kitchen into the dining room.

I’ve probably made about 1,000 pancakes so far. I’ve posted them on my blog, and it’s nice to have feedback. Eventually I’d like to get a book started but I may have to wait until I have a few more pancakes under my belt.

Photograph: Andew Waits

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