Pancake Day

For Catholics around the world, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a celebration. Whether it is referred to as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Pączki Day, it is traditionally considered the last chance to feast before the solemn season of Lent begins. Along with the celebration is a traditional sweet, fatty food: pączki (Polish jelly-filled donuts), Shrove buns (Finnish whipped cream-filled pastries); king's cake (a sweet yeast bread baked with a bean in the middle; whoever ate the bean was crowned Mardi Gras king); fastnacht (German fried potato dough served with dark corn syrup); cenci (Italian sugar coated fried cookies); and at Holy Comforter, as in many communities, pancakes. 

My mother loved to bake. With a Polish/Italian heritage, pączki and cenci were common treats in our family - not just on Fat Tuesday, as my mom called it, but all year long (which explains my constant battle with sweets). Last year, our high schoolers were treated to a king's cake from Haydel's Bakery in New Orleans. Like many traditions nowadays, we follow them without really knowing or understanding why. In my preparation for this year's Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper, I was online looking for a coloring sheet to put on the tables, like they do at Denny's or IHOP. That was when I discovered this fascinating history of "Pancake Day."

More than a hundred years ago, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday used to be a half-day holiday in England. A church bell was rung signaling the start of the holiday and to call people to church to confess their sins and receive absolution for them. This ritual was called shriving; hence the name "Shrove Tuesday." The church bell was rung at 11am, as a reminder to housewives to prepare their pancake batter and be ready for the Shriving service at noon. 

Historically, there were many foods that Christians were not allowed to eat, most considered "foods of the flesh:" meat, fish, eggs, milk, and lard. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast after shriving, and eat all the foods that wouldn't last the forty days of Lent without going bad. Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday because it was a dish that would use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour. 

Not only do the English observe Shrove Tuesday by eating pancakes, there is another pancake tradition that dates back to 1445. The story goes like this: In the little English village of Olney, it was important for everyone to attend the Shriving service the day before Ash Wednesday.  A townswoman, caught up in the preparation of her pancakes, heard the church bells ring out, and fearing she would be late for the Shriving service, grabbed her headscarf (required in church), and fled her house. She ran the distance down the street to the church - still clutching her frying pan and wearing her apron. This was the beginning of the English tradition of Pancake Day Races. 

This event is still commemorated hundreds of years later in Olney. Women compete in traditional apron and cap, and holding a fying pan with a real pancake. They must toss their pancake once at the start of the race and once at the finish by the church. The race starts at 11:55am, with spectators lining the 415 yard route to Olney's St. Peter & St. Paul Church. The race ends at noon when the runners, officials, townspeople and visitors enter the church for the Shriving service. Competitors place their frying pans around the font, fill the seats reserved for them, and during the service, a prize is presented to the winner. But wait . . . the story gets better.

The people in Liberal, Kansas, heard of this 500 year event of pancake racing when a World War II American soldier from Liberal met a soldier from Olney. The event was brought to Liberal, and in 1950 an international challenge was accepted by the Reverend Ronald Collins, Vicar of Olney, from the Jaycees of Liberal. This international running of the Pancake Race has become a symbolic event of peace and unity between the United States and England. The winning time of both the Olney and Liberal races are compared and an international winner is declared and announced at the Shriving service in Olney and at the Liberal townhall.

Who knew that eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday had such a rich and colorful history? All I wanted to do was find a coloring page of pancakes, and in the process I learned a lot and discovered all sorts of fun activities about Pancake Day (including this online Pancake Game

Now that you know its history, please join us for Holy Comforter's annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper on February 21 from 5:30-6:30pm in the Great Hall. We'll be cleaning out the cupboards and serving plain, blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes (although there has been talk that John Barrett makes THE best Swedish pancakes). The only racing you'll probably see is our AIM and WHAM parents and students serving and cleaning as fast as they can.

Although we might come up with a Holy Comforter version of a pancake race . . .you'll have to come to find out!