Today is Shrove Tuesday. Way back in the last century, when I was a child and being raised as a Catholic, Shrove Tuesday was the day before Lent began. For adults, it was a day to be spent thinking about what in your life you needed God’s help to change and what you needed to seek absolution for so that you could select something appropriate to sacrifice for the long forty days of Lent. For me, and most other children, it was about getting to eat pancakes before you had to try and give up chocolate until your Easter Eggs appeared.
My father was a man who understood and passed on the tenets of Catholicism but who never lost his awareness of the secular. He would explain to me that Lent was not just about fasting and abstinence but about trying to break free of patterns of behaviour that make us less than we could be and that Shrove Tuesday’s Pancakes were a last hurrah to raise the spirits before a period of sombre reflection. Then he would tell me how cunning the Church had been in scheduling Lent in what he called ‘the starvation weeks’, that time when, in the Middle Ages, people would start to run out of the food stocks that had carried them through the Winter. He said it was typical of the Priests to make a virtue of necessity and convince people that they were fasting rather than starving and that what was bad for their bodies was good for their souls.
In these more secular times, when Shrovetide sounds more like the name of a College Rock Band than a Liturgical Season, Shrove Tuesday has become Pancake Tuesday. We’ve kept the feasting but lost the reason for it.
I’ve long given up Catholicism but I still hold fast to pancakes on Pancake Tuesday. I enjoy the ritual and the flavours and the sense of having something special that punctuates the year.
I recently discovered this poem by Christina Rossetti, written in 1993 when she was sixty-three years old, which captures the energy and fun that I associate with Pancake Tuesday.
When I was a child, it was my father, rather than my mother, who made the pancakes. This was partly because my mother saw all cooking as a chore and partly because my father loved the performance of pouring the batter into a sizzling pan and then tossing it dramatically. Our dog would watch him with an intense focus, ready to pounce. If part of the tossed pancake missed the pan, the dog would make it disappear immediately.
The pancakes were never stacked. They were served at once and eaten before they could cool. My sister and I would stand with our plate held out to receive the next pancake and then rush to the table to add sugar and lemon juice. One of the things that I took for granted at the time but which seems bizarre to me now, was that the lemon juice came from a yellow plastic lemon with Jif embossed on the side. We weren’t the kind of household that bought fresh lemons but I was quite happy with the zing of the lemon juice concentrate and water that I squirted out of the plastic lemon.
These days, my wife makes the pancakes on Pancake Tuesday. She follows the steps in Christina Rossetti’s poem. She mixes a batter with flour and eggs and sunflower oil then lets it stand. She ladles a portion into a hot frying pan and lets it brown without burning. She tends to flip rather than toss, which is a much more reliable way of making sure there’s a pancake to put on the plate.
The pancakes are thin, like French crêpes rather than thick like American pancakes. but she uses as 20cm frypan rather than the 28cm / 30cm crêpe pan.
We eat them one at a time so that they’re still hot when the caster sugar hits them and the lemon wedges are squeezed over them.
If you’re tempted to try some English Pancakes yourself, take a look at the Youtube video below.