The other day my partner was kind enough to make breakfast for us: Gluten-free pumpkin pancakes from Trader Joe’s. As we sat down to eat, I instinctively cut up all the pancakes on my plate into bite-size pieces and then started eating them. “Do you always cut up your pancakes before you eat them?” she asked. I hadn’t considered it, but after a moment’s thought, I decided, yes, I do tend to pre-cut my pancakes, and most sweet, carbohydrate-rich breakfast items for that matter, before I start eating them. My partner, I noticed, only cut the bite she was about to eat.
Because I can’t let even the most inane breakfast-related question—whether bagels should have seeds on both sides, for instance—go unanalyzed, this idea haunted me the rest of the day. What’s proper, I wondered, the pre-cut technique or cutting as you go? Finally, I decided to investigate.
To start, I emailed etiquette expert Myka Meier, the founder of Beaumont Etiquette. She set me straight right away. “The correct dining etiquette is to cut one piece at a time. You should only cut the one piece you are about to eat, and it is incorrect to cut multiple bites and then eat,” she said.
“It’s to keep you eating at a slower pace,” she said. “Most people eat very fast, so taking breaks after every four bites will help tremendously.”
While I respected Meier’s expertise, I wasn’t done searching. Etiquette, after all, is subjective. I wanted some hard data on the matter, so I wrote to my friend Dom Ciruzzi, a PhD student in geological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and re-framed my question. This time, I wanted to know about heat. If you pre-cut your pancakes, I asked, will they get colder faster?
“Omg I actually know how I could mathematically solve this,” he said. “What an interesting question! I'll get back to you soonish with a detailed response.”
A few days later, he sent me a super legitimate PowerPoint entitled “Heat transfer through cut and non-cut pancakes.” I eagerly read the results.
Ciruzzi created numerical models simulating two theoretical pancakes—one whose cut up pieces were separated by approximately one centimeter, and one that was left uncut—and looked at how their density, thermal conductivity, and heat capacity would affect their heat loss over time.
The results left no room for doubt: Cutting as you go ensures hotter pancakes. After ten minutes, the fully intact pancake would cool 15 degrees. When it came to the cut pancake, however, the outside pieces cooled more quickly than the inner pieces. After ten minutes, he found, the outer pieces would cool 19 degrees, while the inner pieces would cool about 15 degrees.
“I would say that if overall you want to have hotter pancakes throughout your meal, then cut as you go. But if you're guilty of pre-cutting and you want to strategically eat hotter pancakes, eat from the outside in,” he said.
Alas, it seemed that both the laws of science and etiquette dictate that I shouldn’t pre-cut my pancakes. But after looking at all the evidence, I’ve decided to keep doing it anyway. Why? Quite frankly, honey badger don’t care, and I also now have my own self-serving logic to justify my choice.
Breakfast, for me, is all about leisure. That’s why I don’t get coffee to-go if I can at all help it—I like to sit down with it and enjoy it—and why I like to eat reclining when possible, as though it’s Passover everyday and I’m celebrating escaping ancient Egypt.
So when it comes to pancakes, I want to get all the hard work done as soon as possible. Pre-cutting allows me to put my knife to the side for the rest of the meal and get to the good stuff without having to continuously perform the laborious task of carving up my next bite. The result is a generally more relaxing and pleasurable experience.
All of us, moreover, are brought into this world as pre-cutters. As children, before we can cut, our parents carve up our pancakes for us and then let us eat them with our gross, sticky hands at our own pace.
I think of pre-cutting, then, as a more innocent way to eat a pancake—a throwback to a simpler time in our lives, before the world gets to us with its science and etiquette, its pesky rules and facts.
Now when I pre-cut my pancake, I imagine I am that sticky, helpless, happy child and remember all that unselfconscious joy once more. It’s not the worst way to start the day.