The Humble Pancake

The Humble Pancake

Yum. Today is the day when the pancake is traditionally eaten in most Christian countries. If you’re American, you would call today Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. Here in the UK we refer to it as Shrove Tuesday, or secularly, Pancake Day.

Shrovetide is a period in the Christian calendar which covers the two days before Ash Wednesday; the beginning of Lent. Lent is an important time of year for Christians; it marks (roughly) the 40 days before Easter and is thought to refer to the 40 days which Jesus spent in the desert, suffering from temptation. Similarly, Lent has become a time for reflection on holier things and the surrendering of luxuries. Nowadays, those keeping this custom will ‘give up’ something for Lent – a popular choice is chocolate – however traditionally Lent was a time in which people fasted and refrained from frivilous activities. Shrovetide was a time for preparing spiritually for the period of Lent; indeed, the word shrove comes from an old English word, shrive, which means ‘to confess’.

In a physical way, however, the fasting during Lent meant that it became necessary to use up all the excess fatty foods, such as butter and eggs. This is where the beloved tradition of making pancakes today comes from.

Many customs have grown up around Pancake Day. In many places in Britain the pancake race is a popular pasttime. Competitors each hold a pan with a pancake in it and run a certain course. As they race each person must flip their pancake as many times as they can.

There are many different versions of this tradition, however the most famous is perhaps the pancake race at Olney in Buckinghamshire. This is also the largest race in England, in which the all-female racers must wear a dress, apron and bonnet and flip their pancakes at least three times during the race. This tradition is said to date back to Shrove Tuesday in 1445. A woman was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time. Suddenly hearing the shriving bell (calling worshippers to confession), she left in such a hurry that she forgot to put the cooking skillet down, running all the way to church with it still in her hand.

The Greaze is a yearly custom at the Royal College of St. Peter, Westminster and has been held on Shrove Tuesday since 1753. There is a high bar in the school hall, on which a curtain was hung to separate the upper and lower schools in the 16th century. Watched by the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Headmaster and occasionally royal visitors, the head cook at Westminster school tosses a pancake over this bar and students scrabble for it. A set of scales is used to determine which boy has the heaviest piece. The winner receives a gold sovereign (returned for use the next year), and the Dean awards the entire school a half-day holiday in his honour.

If by accident the cook failed to get the pancake over the bar he would be ‘booked’ or ‘stoned’ with Latin primers (textbooks teaching the basics of the language). Although for reasons which may appear obvious, this custom has since long died out.

Perhaps you have wondered why it is so tricky to flip a pancake? In Norway there is an endearing tale about a pancake which became alive while being cooked. Hearing it was about to be devoured by several hungry children, the pancake flipped over in fear and in an attempt to escape. However it was not strong enough to escape the pan until it had been cooked on both sides. At this point it leapt from the pan and rolled out of the door, with the children and their mother chasing after it.

In its mad dash the pancake met a cast of characters; a man, a dog, a chicken and a goose; all calling for the pancake to stop so they could eat it. The pancake rushed onwards until it met a pig, who though hungry was also very intelligent. It called to the pancake, telling it to follow him into the forest where the pancake could escape its pursuers. However, the hungry crowd raced after them. Seeing that the pancake was growing tired and could not run as fast, the pig told it to jump up onto its snout. Whereby the clever pig gobbled it up!

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