Ohiopyle, a little town nestled in what we in Southwestern Pennsylvania like to call the mountains, is home to a state park with a scenic waterfall. By way of recreation, it has a lot to offer. There is white water rafting, kayaking, and canoeing on the Youghiogheny River. There are several nature trails and a variety of guided walks. There is a twenty-seven mile bike path running east along the river to the town of Youghiogheny and west to Connellsville. It is a short drive to Falling Water, the Kaufmann home designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and Kentuck Knob, another Wright design. And next weekend, vendors of crafts and baked goods, candy corn and antiques will line one of the town's two main streets as the local fire department hosts the spring edition of their semi-annual Buckwheat Pancake Festival fund raiser.
Eight dollars per adult will get you two sausage patties, sweet pickles, apple sauce, home-fried potatoes, and all the buckwheat pancakes you can eat. Diners pay at the entrance and then wait on line to be seated at long folding tables when space becomes available. Pickles, apple sauce, and potatoes are served family-style. Pancakes and sausages are served by local teen volunteers. Sausages come once; pancakes will keep coming as fast as they can be eaten. There are even pancakes of the more common persuasion for those with buckwheat phobia.
Buckwheat is a grain once widely grown in the Northeast as feed for livestock. It was also milled into flour and used as a staple in the wintertime. These days, though grown less often, it is generally used to make buckwheat pancakes in places like Western Pennsylvania. To me, buckwheat once meant something quite different. Among my own forbears, Eastern European immigrants settled in New York City, it is more likely to be recognized as the coarse brown groats mixed with bowtie noodles in the ethnic favorite kasha varnishkes or the dry brown stuffing you could have found in Mrs. Stahl's kasha knishes in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Pancakes, as far as I am concerned, are white fluffy things. They have as much to do with buckwheat as mayonnaise does with pastrami.
Still, when in Rome or Western Pennsylvania do as the Romans or the Western Pennsylvanians do. So, twice a year, once in the fall and once again in the spring, my wife and I make the trek to Ohiopyle, she to eat a pancake or two, I to stuff enough of them down my gullet to last me for the six or so months until the next feast. Buckwheat pancakes, it turns out, have nothing to do with the kasha of my ancestors. They are not coarse, and they are not any dryer than any other pancakes. The very first time I ate them I wasn't overly impressed. They have a kind of tart taste that takes some getting used to, but once you do get used to it, it becomes a pleasant addiction. The streets of the village packed with people and the cars that fill anything that even looks like it might be a space are testimony to their popularity. Crowds wait on line to get into either the fire house or the community center where volunteers cook and serve the pancakes. People who have moved out of the area find themselves returning for the festival.
Not that you couldn't make them at home. Google buckwheat pancakes and you'll find plenty of recipes. Most combine the buckwheat flour with all-purpose flour at a ratio of two to one. Yeast, water, and salt are added. The mixture is left to stand at room temperature overnight so that it can ferment a bit. Some recipes suggest refrigerating the batter. The next morning stir in sugar, baking soda, and oil. Fry pancakes in a greased skillet. Most importantly, set a cup of the batter aside in the refrigerator as a starter for future use. There are variations, but this is the basic recipe.
While making them doesn't seem all that complicated, the Ohiopyle Buckwheat Festival is a tradition that packs the town. Other local organizations — churches, volunteer fire departments — host buckwheat pancake suppers and breakfasts, and I'm sure they do well as fundraisers go. Ohiopyle, on the other hand, is twice each year the buckwheat capital of the country.