Race You For the Pancakes

In a previous post I mentioned pancake races, and when people wrote to ask what a pancake race was I promised to explain, so here we go:

Pancake Day celebration sponsored by Crêpe Affaire at St Pancras Station, London

New Orleans revellers call it Mardi Gras, devout Christians of various sects call it Shrove Tuesday, but most British people know the last day before Lent as Pancake Day. It started out part of the religious festival of Shrove-tide (the period made up of Quinquagesima Sunday and the following two days, but I’m sure we all already knew that, didn’t we?). In the Middle Ages, to go a-shroving was to go door-to-door singing for money or just generally to make merry during Shrove-tide, because when Lent started everybody was expected to be penitent. In fact, you were really supposed to make your confession on Tuesday to be ready for Ash Wednesday; to make a confession was to be shriven, which morphed into shrove. (Shrove being the past tense of to shrive, you have to think of it from the priest’s point of view for shrove to make sense).

So where do pancakes come into it? Making pancakes was a good way to use up all the fat and sugar and eggs people had in the house, which they weren’t supposed to eat during Lent. (Given that hens are heathens with no respect for the liturgical calendar and therefore don’t give up laying for Lent, I wondered whether people threw away all the eggs they weren’t allowed to eat or whether the surplus they must have stockpiled by Easter gave rise to the tradition of Easter eggs.  But Zoroastrians were painting eggs for a celebration of spring 500 years before Christ, so while it’s convenient to end Lent with a lot of eggs on hand, it’s apparently only a coincidence.)

The British traditionally serve their Pancake Day pancakes—really what the Americans and the French would call crêpes—sprinkled with sugar and fresh lemon juice. But just like everybody else, the British can put anything into a crêpe, savoury or sweet, and don’t of course have to wait for Pancake Day to eat them.

For one thing, the nice people at Crêpe Affaire who have six locations around London, will be happy to serve you year round with traditional lemon and sugar crêpes (which they call the Mellow Yellow), or with crêpes filled with anything from marinated Thai vegetables to baked beans, plus a list of extra toppings reminiscent (in form, if not in flavour) of a pizzeria menu. (Whoever names the dishes at Crêpe Affaire must be partial to crêpes with fresh strawberries, chocolate and whipped cream; that’s called “I’ll Have What She’s Having”).

Crêpe Affaire Pancake Day celebration. An amateur pancake flipper's pancake hits the deck.

I ran across Crêpe Affair in the retail arcade on the lower floor of St Pancras station, one of London’s major railway terminals, a retail centre the developers hope will become a tourist destination in itself, with Europeans from the Continent coming in by EuroStar (the high-speed rail line that runs through the Channel Tunnel) to shop. Presumably visitors from France, a country full of crêperies, won’t head straight for Crêpe Affair, but then again, British crêpes are presumably different from French ones and French visitors might enjoy la différence. I once had lunch in a French crêperie at which the proprietor was extremely proud that he could furnish us with brand new menus he’d had printed in both French and English. Unfortunately for him, his crêpes with smoked bacon—in French, lardons fumé—had been rendered in English as “crêpes with lard smell”.

As far as I can tell, French cooks don’t usually produce anything like American pancakes, but while pancake is generally used in the UK to mean delicate crêpes a good stiff wind would blow away, some stores here do sell the thicker, baking-powder pancakes Americans are used to, sometimes calling them Scottish pancakes. These are about 5 inches across, and can be found in the bread aisle in supermarkets right next to the muffins, crumpets and scones.

Then there’s the “Big Pancakes” line from the Genesis Crafty Bakery in Northern Ireland; “Big pancakes mean only one thing,” says the package, “big toppings!” Like so many things here, from parking spaces to washing machines, that turn out to be smaller here than in the US, Big Pancakes are all of about 6 inches across.

“Have you ever tried maple syrup on your pancakes?”, says the Genesis Crafty advert at the site where I order groceries on line. “Over 500 million North Americans cant be that wrong” (although we can hope that some of them are better at punctuation than the writer of that copy). Maple syrup is found over by the freezer case here, along with the chocolate syrup for ice cream. But then again some on-line retailers here list American-style pancakes under the category dessert, and one brand (billed as “American Style…delicious buttermilk pancakes”) comes packaged with a pouch of butterscotch sauce.

Depending upon which brand you pick, the instructions will tell you to toast the pancakes in the toaster (the manufacturer suggests serving them with honey), to broil them (UK: grill them), or to eat them right from the package cold, which is how they were served to me when I was invited to tea with a friend of my husband’s family, the only time I’ve had the pre-made pancakes here. If I want American-style pancakes, I make them. And eat them hot.

Crêpe Affaire brings you-- Crêpe Man! Visit them at http://www.crepeaffaire.com/

I do not, however, race with them. A few towns in the UK hold footraces on Pancake Day, with the runners flipping crêpes in a frying pan as they go, either just for fun or to raise money for charity. The most famous is in Olney, a town in Buckinghamshire where women have been running in pancake races ever since 1445 (yes, 1445, or almost 50 years before Columbus started looking to buy a few ships). To be eligible, you must be female; over 18; wearing a skirt or dress plus a kerchief or similar headgear and an apron; and equipped with a pancake in a pan, which you must flip at least 3 times during your run. Unfortunately this year most of the runners wore T-shirts over their skirt-and-apron combos to publicize a fund-raising effort for a local school, a look which rather detracted from the Olde Worlde feel of the event, but National Geographic has some good pictures of other pancake racers here.

Since 1950, the women of Liberal, Kansas, have been running under similar rules and comparing their scores with the women of Olney, though I’m not sure that in Kansas they have the same victory condition: in Olney, the winner is traditionally the first pancake flipper to make it to the church with an intact pancake, offer it to the bell-ringer or verger (depending upon whom you ask, especially if you ask the verger or the bell-ringer, presumably—although it’s possible that these are really the same person), and get a kiss in exchange. In some places, one of the bells rung on Pancake Day was, and for all I know may still be, known as the Pancake Bell, supposedly rung to remind people to mix up their batter.  I know pancake batter is supposed to rest before you start the griddle, but I’d think that any recipe for which the resting time was defined as the time it took to get to church,  make your Shrove Tuesday confession and get back again must have been pretty imprecise.  For one thing, the resting time would vary depending on how much pre-Lent partying you’d indulged in.

So there you have it: pancake races, a centuries-old Shrove-tide revelry. Meet you at the finish line. I’ll bring the maple syrup.



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8 responses to “Race You For the Pancakes

  1. Candida

    The English pancake and French crêpe are not quite the same: crêpe recipes typically include sugar in the batter, which you don’t do with the English ones at all, even if you plan a sweet filling. And sometimes they use beer instead of milk, which makes that wafer-thin, bubbly consistency easier. You need a really gassy, light lager beer ideally. British pancakes tend to be just a little more substantial, less lacy.

    Our Scottish or Scotch ones also get called drop scones, which is funny because they aren’t at all like actual scones.

    I don’t get the whole using things up angle either. Not only do the hens not stop laying – kept cold the eggs could well keep through Lent, or maybe we started making pickled eggs around the same time – but the cows wouldn’t stop producing milk, which half the sources seem to say you also had to give up in Lent. Others say only eggs and butter, which makes more sense, I suppose. Apparently we had lemons all the way back to the Crusades, so they may have been part of the tradition all that time.

    Have you had Simnel cake at the other end of Lent? Yum.

    • I’ve never seen an American recipe for crepe batter that included sugar, so I guess either I’ve led a sheltered existence 🙂 or American crepes are more like English pancakes.

      I once saw Simnel cakes but there was such a crush on that occasion I decided to skip it. Some seemed to have almonds on top, but then again so do some Dundee cakes. (I got one from Fortnum & Mason once as a gift for Ernest, because he’s interested in Churchill and Churchill was known to be fond of their Dundee cakes.)

      • Candida

        Simnel cakes should have 12 marzipan balls on top, really. For the 12 apostles. On a covering of marzipan. And a big slab of marzipan in the middle that melts through the cake. It’s worth Lent for.

      • Wow. Maybe what I thought were almonds were some really miserly cook’s marzipan balls. Or else maybe that cook was running out of marzipan and so had to … oh, I don’t know. Not being familiar with Simnel cakes, I’ve probably just mis-remembered what was on them. I’m lucky to have remembered that there was *something* on them!

        So…you eat it on Easter? My only Simnel-cake sighting was after a service at Guildford Cathedral where I’d gone to meet a friend from California who was visiting her sister here, and the sister had brought a Simnel cake, as had a lot of other people, and they were sharing them out, but there were a zillion people and I don’t much care for crowds. I don’t think it was Easter though, I think I would have remembered that. Hmmm.

  2. Malcolm

    You’ll have to explain crumpets and muffins, too, sometime. And farls. When you come home from a cold, wet, winter walk there’s nothing on earth to beat fresh-toasted crumpets, drooling with butter and smeared with enough Marmite to run down all the little holes and pockmark the underside black. Marmite! They sell it in Pennington Quality Market, NJ, and someplace in Manhattan, but is there anywhere else in America?
    As for that “illiterate” cant for can’t … you’ll have to include GBS in your stricture, for he never apostrophised it either.

    • Same with Virginia Woolf, who didn’t bother with apostrophes in her diaries, and she and her sister, Vanessa Bell, omitted apostrophes in their letters as well. Woolf seems to have used them in typeset writing to be printed. It’s all pretty newfangled stuff anyway, this apostrophe business…

      Marmite is easily available in the San Francisco Bay Area, by the by, but I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

  3. I actually made this video of a pancake day race in my hometown, St Albans, 3 years ago. In this heat you can see a team of vicars from St Albans Abbey competing. I suppose it does look rather like a moment from Father Ted, come to think of it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5HK5_GsIe4

    • Great video! And there turn out to be zillions of pancake race videos on YouTube and I stupidly didn’t look for any or recommend any. Ah, well. Thanks for pointing me to that! (The priests did seem to be rather hampered by their cassocks — pretty funny.)

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