By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
But the pancakes Nathan Shields makes for his children, Gryphon, 6, and Alice, 3, come with a lesson in the biology of aquatic invertebrates.
“You just ate up the bronchial plume,” Shields pointed out as Gryphon and Alice dug their forks into griddle cake nudibranchs.
“And they breathe through those — through the plumes.”
The former math teacher turned professional illustrator has mastered the art of the griddle, flipping intricately designed pancakes in the shapes of world leaders, celebrities and, yes, nudibranchs.
“This may be a bit of cheating,” Shields said of making pancake nudibranchs.
“They’ve got all those tentacles and an invertebrate body, so they’re very forgiving.”
Shields has gained international acclaim for flipping art off his griddle, much of it on subjects that are not so forgiving and all of which he posts on his website, www.saipancakes.com, and his Twitter feed, @saipancakes.
Since putting his pancakes out on social media, Shields has been featured in media outlets all around the world.
“My pancakes have turned up in websites and newspapers all over the world,” Shields said in a recent interview in his family’s kitchen.
“I get the honor of being the fluff news article of the day in all kinds of locations.”
Each time he appears, the traffic on Shields’ sites rockets for a few days.
“Then the interest fades, and it goes back down to like five a day,” Shields said. “And two of those are my parents.”
Shields began crafting his pan-fried art when the family lived in Saipan, hence the Saipancakes moniker for his website and Twitter feed.
His wife, Cheri, got a job as a midwife on the island, which is part of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the western Pacific Ocean.
“They were really desperate over there,” said Cheri, who now works in the maternity ward at Olympic Medical Center.
In charge of their children, inspiration struck Nathan while making breakfast.
“We just kind of started doing it,” Nathan said. “I don’t really know where it came from.”
Gryphon, then 3, ordered up an excavator, and his dad delivered in hotcake form.
“Then, I posted a couple on Facebook, and people liked it, so we kept doing it, trying to perfect the technique.”
He didn’t start out with celebrities and cephalopods.
“The first ones were more like balloon animals. They were more just kind of animal-shaped blobs,” Cheri said.
“But that was when we were still doing it with a spoon,” Nathan countered.
After a brief foray in designing pancakes with a turkey baster and a spray nozzle, Shields noted a squeeze ketchup bottle while eating out one day.
Shields then bought a bottle of his own, went home, filled it with batter and began squeezing out the intricate images that have now earned him his modicum of fame.
The former math teacher turned to some of his scholastic heroes when he began personifying pancakes.
“I think Einstein was the first face I made because it’s recognizable even if you mess it up,” he said. “Some of the other faces can be very challenging. Not like nudibranchs.”
Pictures of those pancakes first earned him a gig slinging pancakes outside a Saipan grocery store.
Then word of Shields’ pancake prowess spread.
Though he made some for an Australian advertising campaign for Nutella hazelnut spread and has appeared in various publications, Shields still has yet to capitalize on his frying pan skills.
Earlier this month, he guest-starred at the Slappyjacks pancake house in Portland, Ore., where he flipped flapjacks for delighted diners at their tables for the salary of a T-shirt.
“Will flip pancakes for T-shirts,” Cheri said.
Shields does look to cash in on his website, where he offers to design pancakes to order.
“I priced them at $100 because I figure most people will request a face,” Shields said.
“And I’m going to be eating a lot of those face mess-ups.”
Though he has yet to take an order for a personalized pancake, Shields said he would donate that money to charity.
His biggest challenge is the electric stove in the Shields’ kitchen.
Next to the stove, Shields keeps a thermometer so he can determine just how hot “4” is and come up with ways to counter the variable heat produced by electric stoves, which turn on and off to meet the “4” temperature.
Another detail is displaying the pancakes.
Shields regularly combs over the shelves of the Port Angeles Goodwill for plates he can use as a backdrop for his pancake pictures.
“Some of them you really have to watch,” he said.
“It may look like a wonderful color, but then you put a pancake on it, and it disappears.”
He is also currently seeking a literary agent to help publish a book of his flapjack frolics.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.