In the Christian calendar, today is Shrove Tuesday. This is the last day before Lent, the 40 day period of fasting and reflection leading up to Easter. In most of the world, observing Shrove Tuesday means a Carnival, or Mardi Gras, a day of processions, costumes, feasting, dancing and music. In the UK, we eat pancakes.
The tradition allegedly dates back to the practice of using up rich foodstuffs before the Lent fast. In medieval times, the fast was a serious business, much as Ramadan is to Muslims today. This history can be seen in the day’s various names: “Carnival” literally means “farewell to meat”, “Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday”, and “Pancake Day” means, erm, the day on which we eat pancakes.
The supposed extravagance of pancakes has always baffled me. Pancakes are only made of eggs, flour, and milk, after all. I can see that you might not kill a pig during Lent, but you’re not going to stop milking your cows or command your hens to abstain from laying eggs. A British pancake isn’t even a spicy, tasty treat like jian bing, or fat and fluffy like an American pancake, but a simple crepe, traditionally eaten with sugar and lemon.
During my 1970’s English childhood, buying a fresh lemon was seen as such a bourgeois decadence that the makers of reconstituted juice (the juice in the lemon-shaped squeezy plastic containers) cheekily laid claim to the whole event: “Don’t forget the pancakes on Jif Lemon Day,” their advertising said.
Nonetheless it was an inexplicably exciting and significant event – a break from the usual diet of dry meat and soggy vegetables. (British food culture has come a long way since then). There was also the adrenaline-soaked thrill ride which is tossing the pancake. Will it end up on the floor? Or stuck to the ceiling? When someone showed me you could simply flip it over with a spatula I was both relieved and a little disappointed.
With only a tinge of embarrassment, I present our family recipe for pancakes. Now you too can dump a spoonful of white sugar on them, squirt some juice from a plastic lemon, roll, and enjoy.
Traditional Shrove Tuesday Pancakes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1.5 cups of milk
0.5 cup of water
2 large eggs
A pinch of salt
1.Break the eggs into the flour, and mix. Mix the milk and water and add the liquid slowly, whisking continuously, until the mixture is smooth with no lumps. Add salt.
2. Grease a frying pan, and get it nice and hot. Pour in a ladleful of the batter, and tip the pan to spread it evenly. When the underside is firm (1-2 minutes), flip or toss the pancake to cook the other side.
3. Repeat until the mixture is used up. Serve hot and with anything that takes your fancy!
Photos: Heather via Flickr, Paul Hurst via Wikimedia Commons