Welcome back, History Lovers.
After a bit of a hectic hiatus, I’m back to serve you up some of the most delicious food related tales from history.
My friend Sally wanted me to write a post on Pancake Day, and although it’s quite late, I’m still sticking to my word. In any case, pancakes are always worthy of examination so I doubt that anyone is going to get too upset over my tardiness.
Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday, is an annual event that falls 47 days before Easter Sunday. As such, the date varies from year to year and can fall anytime between 3 February – 9th of March. Pancake Day is of course the last day before the period of Lent begins, a time of strict abstinence that ends with Easter.
The name ‘shrove’ is derived from the old word ‘strive’ which means ‘to confess’. During the Middle Ages, people would confess their sins on Shrove Tuesday and ask for absolution from God before the commencement of Lent.
So how did pancakes come to be associated with such an important and solemn Christian tradition?
As previously mentioned, Lent is a time when one would give up luxuries, particularly those of the culinary persuasion. Traditionally, eggs and butter were two items that used to be forbidden during the time of Lent as they were considered to be a luxury. It’s believed that pancakes were made in order to use up the leftover eggs and butter. In modern times, people tend to be more inclined to give up things such as chocolate.
One of the more amusing traditions surrounding Pancake Day is the Pancake Race, which began in Olney, England in 1445. The contestants, traditionally women, carry a frying pan and race to over a 415 yard course to the finishing line. The rules are strict: contestants must toss their pancake at both the start and the finish of the race, as well as wear an apron and a scarf. When men want to participate, they must dress up as a housewife, usually with an apron and a bandanna.
This tradition was born out of a story about a woman cooking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. She heard the shriving bell summoning her to confession, which she was running late for. The cut off time was 12pm, so she ran to church wearing her apron and still holding a frying pan with a pancake in it. The result of this was a tradition that has now lasted for over five hundred years.
Some tasty Shrove Tuesday pancake variations from around the United Kingdom include -
Welsh Pancakes – Also known as Welsh Cakes or Light cakes. They are made with sour cream and buttermilk, spread with butter and then piled on top of one another. Sometimes, various ingredients such as fish, cheese, sugar or jam (not altogether, gross) are added between each layer and then the pile is cut into quarters.
Gloucester Pancakes – Made with suet, which gives them a rich and grainy texture. They are traditionally served with golden syrup.
Harvest Pancakes – Often served to the poor, they are made with a mild ale, powdered ginger, and chopped apples. They are then cooked in lard and given to farm hands.
Rich Pancakes – Large and thin, these are made made with cream, nutmeg, and dark sherry before being fried in butter and getting the hell in my belly.
But wait, there’s more! Check out some of the Pancake Tuesday variations from around the world -
France - Mardis Gras, which translates to mean Fat Tuesday/Grease Tuesday. The name refers to the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. Mardis Gras is also the name of the carnival season in New Orleans, which also finds its roots in the preparation for Lent. Celebrations are concentrated for about two weeks before and throughout Fat Tuesday.
Brazil - Terca-feira Gorda, which also translates to mean Fat Tuesday. The Brazilians celebrate with a three day carnival that concludes on Fat Tuesday.
Iceland – Sprengidagur, which translates to ‘bursting day’. I don’t think that needs any further explanation.
Greece - Apocreas, meaning ‘of the meat’. The name is significant because its the last chance to eat meat due to being forbidden during Lent.
I think that one of the most interesting facts about Pancake Day, and the Lenten season in general, is its origin. Despite being a Catholic holiday, its beginnings can be found in Saturalia, an ancient Roman festival that honoured the God Saturn. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and with a public banquet. This was followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a general carnival atmosphere that overturned societal norms. Naturally, the Catholic Church adopted the festival and turned it into a farewell to all things indulgent, as well as a season for religious discipline.
After much consideration and research, I have decided that despite my love of pancakes with maple syrup and bacon, I would much rather party on down with the Romans.