Lent is a very important time of year in many Christian traditions. It’s a time of reflection, self-denial, and personal growth, when we remember all that Christ did for us and the implications that has for our lives. But of course, before we start on our Lenten journeys, we humans feel the need to indulge a bit and do or eat everything we are about to give up. In the US (or at least in the South) this day before Lent starts is called Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.” Like everything else in America, it has become rather extravagent and is essentially its own season, rather than just one day, full of parades and parties and merriment. In England, however, the holiday is still rather subdued. It is known quite simply as Pancake Day.
Why pancakes you ask? Pancakes are made of ingredients like milk, eggs, and sugar, which were considered a luxury and weren’t thought to befit the season of Lent. People often went without these sorts of things during Lent and ate plainer foods. So on the day before Lent, a family would try to use up any leftover ingredients that they wouldn’t be using for the next 6 weeks, and what better way to do so than by making some pancakes?
I recently became a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society here at the Catholic Chaplaincy for the universities, and one of their annual fundraisers is to serve pancakes for Pancake Day. All the proceeds go to help the ministries supported by the “SVP,” including feeding the homeless, working with the local L’Arche community, and other projects with children and the elderly. So of course I was willing to hand over a quid (“a buck”) for some pancakes. And seeing as I only had one class today (which was over by 11 am), I asked if they needed any help. If only I had known what I was asking…
One of the girls turned to me and said, “Well, do you know how to make pancakes?” To which I replied that I did, but I was aware that British pancakes are different than American pancakes. But I love experimenting with recipes, and I was willing to help out in any way they needed me. So I asked where the recipe was, and I would try to whip up some batter. Apparently, however, there was no recipe. “Just try to put in equal parts milk, flour, and eggs,” she said. “And it should come out looking like this.” She pointed to the half-empty bowl of batter. So I agreed, and started mixing.
I suppose it would be more appropriate to call them “crepes” than pancakes, at least by American standards. British pancakes come out flatter and more dense, since they don’t require any oil or sugar or baking powder. There was no maple syrup or blueberries. Instead, people spread their pancakes with nutella or strawberry jam, and some people even topped theirs with cheese or lemon juice! In any case, the pancakes were then folded up with the toppings inside and eaten.
Somewhere along the way I lost track of time. I went through at least 20 litres of milk, 12 dozen eggs, and I don’t even know how many bags of flour. We raised over £250, and if we were selling 3 pancakes for £1 then we must have made at least 750 pancakes. That’s not even taking into account the fact that some of the money was used to go out and buy more ingredients as we quickly ran out, or all of the dud pancakes that burned or ended up on the floor because of an over-eager pan flip.
Student volunteers came and went all day. Some stayed for an hour or two, others for 3 or more. I kept saying that I would leave when they didn’t need any help, but there was always something for me to do. And apparently I’m pretty good at making British pancakes. We had lots of compliments on them. I think throughout the day my pancakes became slightly more “American” in consistency, with less milk and more flour, but in any case people seemed to enjoy them. At least, that’s what I was told. I hope they weren’t just being nice.
So while I should be wearing purple, green, and gold, and going out to a pub to party the night away and celebrate Mardi Gras just like my friends back home, I’m absolutely exhausted. But I’m not really here to bring American customs and traditions to England…I’m here to experience a different set of customs and traditions, and maybe even bring a few home with me. So I might as well spend time meeting some more people, helping out where I can, and flipping a few more pancakes. Besides, it’s all for a good cause, so why not?
So I wish you all a Happy Pancake Day from England! And of course, laissez les bon temps rouler!