In Great Britain, Tuesday is Pancake Day and time for the Great Pancake Race! All across the country, villages and small towns will be celebrating their Shrove Tuesday by flipping pancakes!
Tuesday is known as Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday. In French, this day translates to a name I’m sure everyone is more familiar with … “Mardi Gras“. What day am I talking about? Yes, the day before Lent. The day when, as a Christian, you can celebrate and feast on absolutely anything you want, in any quantity you want, because, beginning Wednesday, you must fast.
Wednesday is the beginning of the solemn Lenten season, a time of penance and renewal before Easter. Sunday starts the three-day celebration period before Lent, which is commonly known as Mardi Gras or Carnival. In medieval times it was known as “Shrovetide“, with the final day called Shrove Tuesday. (The name ‘shrove’ comes from ‘shrive’, which refers to the ritual of confessing sins.)
How do pancakes and races fit into all this? Again, during this Lenten period, fasting was strictly adhered to. Rich, fatty foods such as meat and fish, sugar, eggs and dairy were prohibited during this solemn time. For the poor and middle class, food was precious and they did not want to waste a bit. What dish could they make to use up all these ingredients? Pancakes. This humble dish which used all the household’s fat, eggs, milk and sugar ultimately became the symbol of Shrove Tuesday.
At one time, Shrove Tuesday was a very important religious day in Great Britain. It was a national holiday, a mini Mardi Gras, a time for celebration. During this time, many events would take place … from football games to cock fighting to skipping rope contests. But precisely at 11:00am, the village church would ring a bell as a reminder to the housewives that it was time to prepare the pancake batter. After which, the church would then ring a ‘Shriving Bell’ to call the people to church for the confession of their sins.
But pancake racing? Apparently, in 1445, in the village of Olney, or so the legend goes, a woman heard the ‘Shriving Bell’ while she was in the middle of making her pancakes. Not wanting to stop for fear she would burn her pancakes, and still in her kerchief and apron, she ran to the church clutching her frying pan and flipping her pancake. From that day on, every year, all of Britain celebrates Shrove Tuesday by honoring this woman and her pancake-making prowess by conducing “pancake races”. The Olney Pancake Race is now world famous.
Although it is no longer a holiday, the bell is still rung today in villages across England and Shrove Tuesday celebrations are everywhere. If you’d like to enter the now famous Olney race, the rules are very strict. The race starts promptly at 11:55 am. Bring your skillet. Competitors have to be local housewives and must wear an apron and a hat or scarf. The pancake flippers start at the market place in Olney and race to the Church of St. Peter, flipping their pancakes along the way.
If you don’t live in Olney, don’t be concerned, pancake races are held in most villages across the country. You’ll see not only housewives, but school children, clerks, clergy and even professionally-dressed businessmen in aprons. The object of the race is to rundown the street, carrying a frying pan with a hot, cooked pancake in it and flip the pancake at least three times as you run. The first one to cross the finish line, and serve the pancake to the bellringer is the winner.
Whether you participate in a pancake race or not, I hope on Tuesday you at least uphold this fun tradition and fill your belly with rich, sweet, delicous pancakes!