Today is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent which is the Christian period of preparation leading to Easter. Lent is in recognition of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness and Christians spend the time in penitence, fasting or self-denial, prayer and almsgiving. In England pancakes are traditionally eaten today to use up dairy foods and other “luxury” items prior to the start of Lent. The word “shrove” comes from the Old English word “shrive”, indicating that sins should be “shriven” before the beginning of Lent.
In England there are many festivals and traditional activities associated with pancake making on Shrove Tuesday. Many villages hold a pancake race – a running race where competitors must toss a pancake in a pan
as they complete the course. In Olney, Bucks, since 1445 a pancake race has been run in the town every Shrove Tuesday. Tradition records that back in 1445, on Shrove Tuesday the “Shriving Bell” rang out to signal the start of the Shriving church service. On hearing the bell a local housewife, who had been busy cooking pancakes in anticipation of the beginning of Lent, ran to the church, frying pan still in hand, still in her apron and headscarf. The women of Olney recreate this race every Shrove Tuesday by running from the market place to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The traditional prize is a kiss from the verger. In modern times, Olney competes with the town of Liberal, Kansas in the United States for the fastest time in either town and winner of the “International Pancake Race”.
There are as many recipes for pancakes as there are fillings to put in them. The way I do them is the way my Dad showed me, who was shown by his Mum my Grandma. I take 8oz of plain flour, add an egg and as much
milk (I’ve never measured it so I couldn’t tell you how much!) to make the batter into the consistency of cream. Add a pinch of salt and use a balloon whisk to remove the lumps and set it aside for an hour or so until you’re ready to cook. Add a small piece of lard to a non-stick pan and heat it until it starts to smoke. Drizzle a ladleful of the batter into the pan and swish it about until it is an even layer. With a fish slice check that the bottom has set after a minute or so and then either flip it over or toss it up to turn it. Depends how brave you’re feeling! When the other side has cooked, slide it out onto a plate to serve. With the 8oz of flour I can usually get enough pancakes to feed 4 of us with seconds and there’s usually a bit left over. We usually just add lemon juice and a sprinkle of sugar before rolling them up, but in recent years the kids have been asking for other fillings – nutella, or jam have been the favourites.
And that’s how we do pancakes in England on Shrove Tuesday.
Unfortunately, as with other Christian festivals and traditions, Shrove Tuesday has been increasingly secularised and is now more commonly referred to as “pancake day” (I can’t even bring myself to capitalise the title as a noun…shudder). It is yet another example in our society where Christ has been removed from the festival but the partying remains for most most people. Sad, but true.