Calamity in the Kitchen

Martha Jane Cannary Burke

When I was a little boy, my grandmother would occasionally tell me stories of my rich, Wild West heritage. More correctly, she would make statements about it, since her stories weren’t very involved. They were more like out-of-nowhere utterances. Tall Tale Tourette’s is how I prefer to think of them.

She’d swoop upon our household once or twice a year from Arizona– where she moved “for her health”– to teach us card games, bake a couple of pies, plunder my stuffed animal collection “for the Indian children”, and pepper her speech with grand statements like “You know you’re related to Calamity Jane and Crazy Horse, don’t you?”

Being young and susceptible to sensationalism, I believed everything she told me. I would imagine Calamity Jane and Chief Crazy Horse sitting together outside of Mr. Horse’s teepee, sometimes sipping frosty mugs of  root beer, other times talking about how special I was, and what I would be and look like when I grew up.

Daydreaming about my famous ancestors made me feel less suburban and very special– as if I were in line to inherit the throne of The Great American West. Or something to that effect. It was my fantasy, after all, and I enjoyed every moment of it, however short-lived.

And it was short-lived.

On another visit, my grandmother lead me into the living room, sat me down on the good couch, pressed a coin into my little hand, and said with great, whispered solemnity, “Now Michael, I want you to take real good care of this. It’s two hundred years old. Worth a lot of money.” And then she wandered off into the kitchen.

I examined the coin. It was  a 1976 Bicentennial quarter. She saw the date 1776 embossed beneath George Washington’s beefy neck and discarded the rest of the information. It was at that moment that I understood that was was more likely to be descended from a crazy woman than a Crazy Horse. But she meant well, showered me with attention, and baked an excellent pie.

Doris Day as Martha Jane Cannary Burke

I did my best to overlook her eccentricities, but I never again took any of her stories as gospel. I just took them with a heavy pinch of salt, since I didn’t think a mere grain of it would be enough to counteract my grandmother’s imagination. I left Calamity Jane where I thought she best belonged– out of my family tree and onto the back lot of Warner Bros. Studios, played by Doris Day (which in itself was a total fabrication). Since Doris Day happened to by my aunt and uncle’s next door neighbor at the time (though I never saw her), I figured that was about as close to Miss Calamity as I would ever get. And that was close enough for me.

Thirty-three years later, however, a random encounter got me to rethink my relationship to this gun-toting wildcat.

At the end of an endless-seeming evening at work, I fell into conversation with a couple who were on their way to Montana for a little getaway.

A silver baby cup from Livingston, Montana. Filled with whiskey, surrounded by quarters.

“Montana?” I asked. “I’ve never been there, but I’ve always meant to visit because that’s where my grandfather’s from.” When they asked what town, I told them the name of what I imagined to be a small town they’d never heard of. “Livingston,” I replied.

“Oh my god,” said the woman, “That’s where we’re going! We love Livingston.”

“Seriously?” I thought that my grandfather had fled the town because it was such a shit hole and I said as much to this couple sitting at my table, unable to understand why on earth they would choose such a place to holiday.

“Oh, it was a shit hole,” said the man. “The town was so poor, it couldn’t afford to tear down the old buildings and put up new ones, like all the other places in the area. But now it’s an artist colony and all the old buildings have been refurbished. It’s a really special place.”

To which the woman added, “And Calamity Jane lived there.”

“Well I’ll be a… ” I realized I was too far-removed from pioneer life to come up with an appropriate homey simile, so I stopped myself. Instead,  I thanked them for the information, wished them well, and called them a cab. I ran home and Googled “Livingston, Montana” and “Calamity Jane”. It turns out she did live in Livingston periodically. My great-grandfather ran the general store, which was the only game in town in terms of dry goods purchases at the time. They had to have met,  if only in passing.

So there was a grain of truth to my grandmother’s tall tale–however tiny.

I thought about that same great-grandfather who ran the general store. He was half Lakota, but could pass for white with his Irish freckles. Could a really be descended from the man who lead the raid which killed General Custer? Maybe, maybe not. There is no existing proof to back up the story, but I’ll tell you one thing:

I’ll bet you anything that I come from people who may have met him, too. And that’s good enough for me.

It’s unimportant that Calamity Jane did not (or that Crazy Horse may or may not have) contributed to my gene pool. What matters to me is that my grandmother’s stories didn’t just come from the movies. Or Outer Space. There was an ounce of truth to them, however far she may have stretched it to suit her own needs.

And that, I think, is how all tall tales evolve–around fact. An alcoholic, gun-toting, Wild Bill Hickock-pestering army scout walks into a general store looking for a sack of flour and–presto!–eighty years later, she’s family.

The truth is relative. Or not, as the case may be.

I’d like to wax philosophical about that idea but, right now, I’d rather make something to eat. Something that Calamity Jane (née Martha Jane Canary) might have made cooking breakfast at the inn she kept just outside of Livingston, Montana. Something like flapjacks. Or, in this case:

Calamity Flapjanes

Martha Jane Cannary was no stranger to tall tales. She spent a good deal of her existence distancing herself from that which was painful and exaggerating the things of which she was most proud. She worked as laundress, a cook, and a prostitute. She scouted for the U.S. Army, she saved the lives of stagecoach passengers from Indian attacks, and she nursed smallpox victims backed to health.

And, of course, she was no stranger to nursing a bottle of whiskey.

She (falsely) claimed to have served under General George A. Custer (that would have been an uncomfortable connection, had I been truly related to both her and Chief Crazy Horse). Nor did she ever marry Wild Bill Hickock like she said she did. She is, however, buried next to him. Having said that Calamity Jane was of no use to him alive, Hickock’s friends thought it would be amusing to see if he might change his opinion of her in the Sweet Hereafter.

In honor of my non-relative, I’ve made something as straight-shooting, hardy, and boozy as a Wild West woman in leather pants: buckwheat pancakes liberally sprinkled with rye whiskey and doused with salty, sweet syrup. It’s sure to be a real crowd pleaser, provided the crowd is populated by cattle ranchers, army scouts, and prostitutes.

And that’s no lie. Or not much of one, at any rate.

Flap Janes

(Adapted with permission from Elise Bauer’s Buckwheat Pancake recipe from Simply Recipes. Bless you.)

Serves 2 to 3 Tall Tale Tellers, or 4 to 5 Little White Liars


  • A small amount Vegetable oil for coating the pan
  • 3/4 cup (100g) buckwheat flour
  • 3/4 cup (100g) all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups (475 ml) buttermilk
  • A liberal sprinkling of whiskey (rye, bourbon, or illegally distilled in your yard)
  • 3/4 cups maple syrup
  • 2 good pinches of salt


1. Place an old, trusty griddle or cast iron skillet over your wood stove that has been fired with 4 3-pound pieces of hickory wood. Should you lack this most basic amenity, warm it over medium heat from your gas or electric burner. If you want to be extra sissified, hitch up your petticoats and break out your non-stick skillet. Whichever pan you use, it should be ready for the batter as soon as it is mixed.

2. Whisk together the dry ingredient–both flours, sugar, salt, baking soda–in a bowl large enough to double as a protective helmet, should an Indian attack occur. Pour the melted butter over the dry ingredients that you may or may not have purchased from a striking gentleman with freckles and prominent cheek bones from that delightful little general store in Livingston, Montana and start stirring. Beat the egg with a fork and stir it into half of the buttermilk.

3. Next add the buttermilk/egg mixture to the dry ingredients, then carefully add the rest of the buttermilk to get the right consistency for your batter. (Hint: it should not be so quick to pour as the brown fox who jumped over the lazy dog, but neither should it be a slow as molasses in January.)

DO NOT OVERMIX. A few lumps are just dandy, thank you.

4. Put a small amount (about half a teaspoon) of vegetable oil on the pan, using a paper towel to spread the oil into an even coating. Ladle 1/4 cup of batter into your pan, reduce heat to medium-low, and let the pancake cook for 2-3 minutes. When air bubbles start to rise to the surface at the center of your pancake, flip it. Cook for 1-2 minutes on the other side, or until nicely browned like a cowboy’s neck. Only not as leathery.

5. Keep your flap janes warm on a rack in the oven set to very low as you are making them. Spread more oil as needed in the pan as you go. Cook until all the batter has been used or until you are so bored with the process that you decide to stop.

6. To serve, add two good pinches of salt to your maple syrup. Taste it. Is it salty-sweet? If not, add more salt, since that’s what we’re aiming for here. Set aside. To plate, stack 4 to 5 pancakes, sprinkling a small amount of whiskey as you go. You know, the thumb-over-the-bottle-mouth shaking method. Gentle-like. You don’t want your breakfast swimming in booze. Think: functional alcoholic. Eat with generous pats of butter and salty maple syrup.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Breakfast Time, Celebrities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Calamity in the Kitchen

  1. Nicole says:

    Nothing like a fantastic story alongside a stack of pancakes. Still chuckling at “Tall Tale Tourette’s.” Thanks, Michael.

  2. Dee says:

    Michael, you never disappoint! How DO you manage to pack this much humor and charm into a recipe? And your photo captions are as delicious as ever.

    • Oh, I can disappoint, believe me, but I’m delighted you enjoyed the post, nonetheless.

      How do I pack so much humor and charm into a recipe? That’s a good question for my shrink.

      Can’t wait to catch up with you in person in precisely one week!


  3. NicoleD says:

    Your Grandmother reminds me of one of mine. She used to tell us we were related to General George S. Patton and that her family created the recipe for King’s Hawaiian sweet bread. I’d like to think there was a grain of truth, but she’s known for her tall tales. I must try that salty sweet syrup!

    • Patton AND King’s Hawaiian sweet bread? That’s tough to beat. I am now imagining the good general receiving a loaf of sweet bread in his USO care package and ordering his troops to scour Sicily for spinach and Maui onion dip. I didn’t see that part in the movie, but I’d like to think it happened.

  4. Tracy says:

    Or your crazy woman grandmother’s intention was to give you the hat check token for the entire United States. It was, after all, 200 at the time.

  5. Loving the Flap Janes. Salty syrup and whiskey… and I love the story. The “crazy” people in my family are always the most entertaining – and my favorites. I never even knew they were thought to be crazy until I grew up and my family spoiled everything by telling me. Sometimes a tall tale is more fun than the truth, especially if it has an ounce of truth.

    • I suppose I should count myself blessed that my family is so full of crazy– so many stories to mine.

      • Exactly.

        I always tell people that my life story makes for great smalltalk at cocktail parties. In turn, they are either horrified or amused by the fact that I’d talk about such things at cocktail parties. The truth is, I don’t go to cocktail parties, but if I did, I certainly would tell all my crazy tales. 🙂

        • Our lives are often one, long series of anecdotes. Sometime in the near future, I would very much like to recount a story about the time I stood around drinking wine at a party talking to strangers while actually standing around drinking wine and talking to those same strangers. It would be like a live broadcast of the event on a very, very narrow bandwidth.

  6. Bee says:

    Such a lovely story 🙂 My dad liked to talk about the time he met Larry Bird, or Aerosmith… he’s gone now, and these little tall-ish tales are fun to think about when I remember him and his silly sense of humor.

    • I’ve actually met Steven Tyler. When I escorted him to the elevator, there was a certain song I could not get out of my mind. And, given that it occurred to me near said contraption, I had “Love in an Elevator” playing in an endless loop– but its Musak version.

      I was near tears for the rest of the evening.

  7. diane says:

    My last name is one that most Vietnamese don’t want to claim as their own, telling me it’s Chinese. Most Chinese tell me it’s too unique and strange to be Chinese, it must be Vietnamese. I just always called myself a Viet-Chinese Mutt, 1/16 Chinese and/or 90% Vietnamese, which ever made more sense to the listener.

    Then one day my brother rushed to tell all us siblings that his friend saw a documentary about this powerful ruler, who was a part of a powerful Mongolian clan. This clan was brave, strong and roamed the highlands of the vast Mongolian lands with iron fists.

    This members of this clan were direct descendants of Genghis Khan. Their family name was Cu.

    Gasp, we all looked at one another and thought, ” holy shit, this explains everything!”.

    We ran to the computer to google – ” cu, clan, mongolian, ruler, bad-ass, horses”.

    Nothing came up. We kept searching archives online, ancestry websites, family tree searches for $5.99 , but all to no avail. Regardless, in our hearts, we believed that we were all descendants of the Cu Clan, ferocious leaders of the Mongolian empire, descendants of Ghengis Khan. And we were bad-ass horseman, horsewomen.

    For years, when people asked me where I’m from, and I told them I was Mongolian.
    I was a Cu clan descendant, blood line to Ghengis Khan.
    I always got great responses like “oh wow, I never met a Mongolian Khan before. Cu is so unique”.
    I’m here before you, my child.

    Then one day Brother randomly told me one day at dinner that he finally tracked down where his friend saw this documentary about the Cu Clan.
    I was thinking “National Geographic?! Discovery Channel? History Channel?!!”.

    He replied, ” The Disney Channel”. *insert deflating balloon sound, here*

    Regardless of the fact where the story of our Cu ancestors came from, I still believe that my ancestors, where ever they might hail from, were strong, committed, hard-working people.

    And one thing I know is for certain. I’m definitely not …. Mulan. ok?!

    bad-ass horse-girl,

    • both amazing stories. The only story I know about my family’s background is that my Grandmother Aurea was really named Elvira and not Aurea. Up until she had to be matriculated to go to school my great-grandmother and the whole rest of the family thought that her legal name was Aurea. Then she realized that her husband has given her the name of Elvira. My great-grandmother confonted her husband and he said that while my great-grandmother was having her baby in the hospital (dads could not be in the room at that time) he slept with one of the nurses named Elvira, so he named his daughter after the nurse. Beautiful isn’t it?

    • Diane,

      Do you have any idea how much I love that story? Lots.

      And now I have the voice of Margaret Cho in my head screaming “Mu-ran!”

      So thanks for that.

      And, by the way, you ARE bad-ass.


    • Do I need to tell you how much I love that story? It’s lots.

      And now I have Margaret Cho yelling “Muuu-rannnnn!” in my head. So thank you for that.

      I get Greek people telling me I have a Greek name from time to time. I sometimes explain that Procopio is such an old name, that it travelled to Constantinople with the Roman Empire. Most of the time, I just say, “Oh really? How interesting!”

      And, by the way, you ARE a bad-ass.


  8. And the best story I ever got was that I was descended from Hungarian cattle rustlers!

    Your story is way better. All I can say for mine is that it provides a rationale for the otherwise inexplicable pull that livestock has on me.

    Let’s hear it for whiskey in the morning, and leather pants.

    • Don’t knock the Magyar rustlers. Them’s good genes.

      Yes, let’s hear it for whiskey in the morning! And I have it on good authority that whiskey is an excellent leather cleaner, so if one were to get syrup in one’s lap…

  9. A great story told by an even greater man. I love the little details in this piece. Especially the 1776 coin and the snatched up stuffed toys. Great to see into that past of yours.

    My mother tells me Johnny (Chapman) Appleseed is a distant relative. The fact that a distant cousin was the man behind apple orchards across the country makes me (and my gene pool) feel rather proud.

    And if you want to know more about Calamity Jane, I suggest you get Deadwood on Netflix. It was a GREAT HBO show and will certainly give you some interesting insights into Jane’s character.

    happy hunting,

    • I remember when Grammy took one of my favorite toys, a love-worn stuffed sheep named Lambikins. I was quite bent out of shape about it. And then, on my last visit out to her, I saw the toy sitting on her bed on top of the pillows. She didn’t want it for the Indian children. She wanted something of mine to have close.

      It damned near broke my heart.

      Johnny Appleseed? That would be awesome. Have you read Pollan’s The Botany of Desire? The whole first chapter is devoted to Mr. Appleseed.

      And I’ll check out Deadwood.


  10. Sharon says:

    If you had held onto that quarter, in another 165 years, it would be 200 years old. And worth a lot of money. Grains of truth….

    • Who says I didn’t hold onto that quarter? According to Amazon, it’s worth $3.95. I’m holding out for $20, which should happen at approximately the age I reach retirement. Of course, by the time I reach retirement age, there may no longer be such a thing.

  11. Sis Boom says:

    I do hope you get to Livingston. I go there often as my dad lives in Bozeman just down yonder from Livingston. We always make a point of making the drive to eat at 2nd St. Bistro (featured once on Bourdain’s show.) While yes it is an artist colony and has gone through some rejuvenation as a result it is still full of its ‘old timers’ who will delight you with stories of the town and its characters going way back. Someone who probably knows someone who heard of your relative, etc. All for the price of a beer. Or two. So worth a trek Michael.

    • We’re practically neighbors!

      I think I’d go more for the old timers than anything. I wonder if my great-grandfather’s store is still there? I know so little about that side of my family because my grandfather died before I was born. He did, however manage to do a drawing of the store completely from memory that was published in the L.A. Examiner (I think that was the rag) back in the 40’s. I need to locate that drawing. And soon.

      Thanks for the encouragement. Livingston has just shot way up on my must-visit list.

  12. Lana says:

    Perfect read to accompany my coffee, although I wished I could tip in some of that whiskey you were mentioning (it was not ONLY for the pancakes, right?)

    Your grandmother might have been an undiscovered storyteller – after all, as writers we never make things up or lie, we just embellish and exaggerate.

    Thanks for sharing your stories:)

    • I was about to say, “Why NOT tip some whiskey into your morning coffee?” when I realized that I am a lousy morning drinker. If I have so much as champagne for brunch, all I want to do is go find the nearest soft ground upon which to nap.

      And it is my pleasure to tell stories. I’m just grateful that there are people out there in the world who like to read them.

      Like you, for example. So I’m grateful for you.

  13. Lindy says:

    Once again you have made my day with your “story” and a recipe! When my children were wee ones, I would make up tales……..they remind me of them frequently……….

  14. I’m a fan of tall tale telling…I always say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story! Oh, and the pancakes sound yummy too!


  15. you have just a great wild west story-telling knack, i could sit around a bond fire listening to you, whiskey in one hand, guitar in the other
    we might be related…: me and my brother were born respectively on bonnie and clyde’s birthdays… funny that we actually know this fact! also, i married into a family that descends from either lewis or clark from the lewis and clark…can’t remember…

    • Thanks very much, Amelia.

      I’m glad you got Bonnie Parker’s birthday rather than Clyde Barrow’s.

      Two bits of trivia for you: 1). You chose to comment on the 77th anniversary of Bonnie & Clyde’s death. 2) My college roommate’s grandfather owned the car in which they were killed.

      And that is no tall tale.

      • Impressive timing (on my end)…and impressive quick fact verification (on your end)!
        …but then again you are always one step ahead… Procopio meaning “progressive” (you probably know by now that Procopius was a 4th-century saint who was beheaded for refusing to worship pagan gods > since that was before guns were around)

  16. Dana Nahai says:

    I am supposed to be diligently working here in the wee hours, but I stop by your site to look for an email subscription and get reeled in at Tall Tale Tourettes. It really is a great snippet, Michael. I want a tome. And an email subscription (do you have one?)

    • I should be diligently working right now, too, but I’m doing laundry. I’d love to create a tome, you know. However, I am being patient and hoping the day will come when I can. As for email subscriptions, I have a little “Feed the Thoughtless” do-hicky in the right column to subscribe to rss. Is that the same thing? Is it totally pathetic of me not to know if there’s a difference? xom

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