Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Pancake Day in England, Mardi gras in New Orleans, aka Shrove Tuesday

Mardi gras in New Orleans
Why, when other parts of the world were throwing wild parties and mounting lavish parades on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi gras) do English people race along the roads of towns and villages throughout the land wielding frying pans from which they occasionally toss a pancake? Answer: to an Englishman or woman, Shrove Tuesday is Pancake Day!  Yay!  One of the few days, in many cases the only day, in the year when an Englishman will tuck into this cross between a batter pudding and a Frisbee.  Pancake Day races are one of those strange customs that stretch back into the annals of British History. I’m about to tell you the story but first you need to know (assuming that you don’t already know) why on Shrove Tuesday pancakes are whipped up from a combination of eggs, flour, and butter.

Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of the forty days of Lent. Lent marks the period when, according to the New Testament, Jesus went into the wilderness to fast and contemplate his fate.  During the forty day period he was tempted by the Devil, who promised him power and riches if he would abandon God.  During Lent, in the far off time when the culture of England was deeply religious, Christians fasted on a simple diet for the forty day period. Before the fast started the people used up all of the rich foods in the store cupboard –including eggs and fats – which, with flour are the ingredients of pancakes – and attended Church to be ‘shrived’ i.e. forgiven for their sins.

The Pancake Bakery. Pieter Aertsen, 16th century 

The legend has it that on a Shrove Tuesday in the fourteenth century a housewife in the village of Olney was in the process for frying pancakes when she heard the church bell tolling to summon the congregation. Anxious not to miss the service she ran down the street, frying pan in hand and tossing her pancake to prevent it from burning. To this day the Olney Pancake Day race is run by local housewives. It is the most famous Pancake Day race of the many run throughout England.

Olney Pancake Day Race
Strict rules apply. Only local housewives may participate. The pancake must be tossed at the beginning and end of the race.

The pancakes eaten on Shrove Tuesday and quite thin and often crispy around the edge – more like a crepe than the thicker pancakes often eaten in the USA and Canada.  The secret of a good pancake is to let the batter stand for a while before use and to get the pan smoking hot with a thin coating of fat. Butter is commonly used nowadays but my mother always used lard. The debate about what to spread on the pancake rages – I go for the traditional lemon juice and sugar. But a filling of apples softened just a little in a pan of water and sprinkled with cinnamon is a close runner up.
English pancakes