On the last day of Lent, most of our thoughts turn to gumbo, Hurricanes, and Mardi Gras beads. But in Britain and Ireland, it’s not Fat Tuesday—it’s Shrove Tuesday, affectionately known as “Pancake Day.”
For centuries, those in the United Kingdom (and Anglicans elsewhere) have celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday with a pancake feast—indulging in the sugary, buttery treats off-limits for Lent, and using up the eggs and dairy that some denominations restrict during the forty days of fasting. The pancakes served are a bit thicker than a crepe, served either as sweet (with lemon and sugar) or savory (with a meat stew).
But like so many age-old celebrations, the fun doesn’t stop with the feast. “Pancake races” are held across Britain, with the oldest (dating to 1445) held in the Buckinghamshire town of Olney. Legend has it that an Olney woman was frying up hotcakes on Shrove Tuesday when she heard the bell for confession and sprinted to church… and a tradition was born. Each year, contestants clad in aprons and scarves line up with frying pans in hand and run a footrace, tossing the flapjacks in the pan as they go. The winner is she who crosses the finish line first—but only after three successful flips.
In many former British environs, pancake traditions persist: in some parts of Canada, trinkets are imbedded in the pancakes, bringing good luck to those who find them—like the baby in the New Orleans King Cake. Other nations have their own versions: Lithuanians eat doughnuts called spurgos, those in Pennsylvania Dutch communities are called Fosnacht, and the Swedes indulge in marzipan-filled buns called semla. Whether or not it’s pancakes on the table, Shrove Tuesday is about one last celebration, before the long Lent ahead.