creating community through celebration

Food For Thought - February 2009

It is mid-February, and as we move on from Valentine's Day and affairs of the heart, we turn next to affairs of the stomach, more specifically - pancakes. That's right. Call them batter cakes, crepes, flapjacks, griddle cakes, hotcakes, festy cocks, johnnycakes, or even tire patches, but pancakes hold a deep and ancient claim to the month of February.

The reason is Lent, the 40-day period of privation that precedes the celebration of Easter in Christian religions. In many societies, the pre-Lenten period is marked by feasting and celebration: Mardis Gras (Fat Tuesday) in Francophone cultures, Fasnacht Day in Germany, and the Polish Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday), for example. Probably the most flamboyant celebrations are the various Carnivals observed throughout the world, and leading up to Ash Wednesday (determined by the lunar phases and falling on February 25th this year).

The expressions of carnival are varied and striking. Of course the Samba Dancers of Rio de Janeiro and the masquers of Venice are well-known icons of the season, but in Patras Greece, an effigy of King Carnival is burnt in the town square on Ash Wednesday, and in 18th century France a similar effigy was buried on the day to symbolize the death of good living.

Germany, too has a couple of seasonal celebrations worthy of note. In mid-February, the mayor of Munchen-Gladbach hands over the keys of the town hall to a group of women, disguised as old crones who then go singing and dancing down the street, cutting off the ties of any males they happen to catch (we need not dwell here on the symbolism of that one). Later, the “Hoppiditz”, the spirit of Carnival, is buried and the celebrants all sit down to a meal of fish.

But what has this to do with pancakes? I'm coming to that, but first a bit of British lore. In Anglican circles, preparation for Lent includes being purged or “shriven” of sin. And so “Shrove Tuesday” is the sober equivalent of Mardis Gras and the other celebratory weekdays. Sandwiched between Ash Wednesday and Collop Monday, Shrove Tuesday was historically the occasion for much English festivity.

Pancake Day

There is an account from 1440 of a man named John Gladman, who rode down the streets of Norwich on Shrove Tuesday, costumed as the King of Christmas, driving before him costumed representatives of the twelve months of the year and another horseman, bedecked in red and white herring skins, portraying Lent. Remember this is in the time of the old Julian calendar and dates were somewhat scrambled by modern standards. There are also surviving customs of impromptu street football matches, and tales of the February burning of the Holly-boy and the Ivy girl in 18th century Kent.

And in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, midday of the “Festen's E'en” is marked by the tolling of the - wait for it - Pancake Bell. This is a signal for the villagers to fire up the griddle and mix up the batter in anticipation of the second - Pancake Bell. At this signal, the young girls of the village are to race to the chapel, carrying plates of hot griddle cakes to be offered to the bell-ringers. At Westminster School, Shrove Tuesday was observed by twenty boys competing to see who could win a guinea by flipping a flapjack over the ceiling beams of the main hall. From these customs, a host of racing and flipping events have evolved. The town of Olney traces its hotcake history back to at least 1445. Here the rules require the female contestants to line up, hot skillets in hand, and race to a finish line, flipping thin pancakes all the while. The winner is the first one across the line, having flipped her flapjack the requisite number of times.

So if you are at a loss for a way to revel in late February - if Mardi Gras beads and Valentine hearts don't seem to quite capture the essence of the season - you can handily link yourself to a tradition celebrated from Lithuania (Uzgavėnės) to Liberal Kansas (International Pancake Day) or even France (Chandeleur). All you need is a hot skillet, a bit of batter, and with a flick of the wrist, you'll be Revelin' in every season.

NOTE: To see a wonderfully whimsical depiction of crepe revelry in Brittany click here.

And here you can get complete rules for the Olney Pancake Race

- David Parr, Artistic Director