Pancakes Tonight!

It’s a bit sobering to think that Carnevale, at this time last year, was probably the last large gathering of people on a grand scale on this planet since February of 2020. Health concerns keep us keeping our distance. This year’s Carnevale festivities in Italy have been much more subdued… probably just as they were in times of plague in ages past.

Carnevale, or Carnival, began on the 30th of January this year in Venice. In English speaking countries, the season is better known as Shrovetide: the time of merry making before Lent begins. And Shrove Tuesday is today: the very last of it, capping off the celebration. Tomorrow will bring Ash Wednesday and a decidedly more solemn time: Lent, forty days of fasting and penance and reflection. Which is perhaps something we need every now and then. Certainly once a year, it was thought, and why not now, when the larders were getting empty. Back in the days when food was not as plentiful and easily procured as it is now, Lent was not just a season in the church calendar; it was a crucial time of fasting to help get everyone through until fresh food could be gathered again in the spring.

There are many traditions in foodways for Shrove Tuesday, known also as Mardi Gras. I’m not so crazy about the King Cakes that are in bakeries and grocery stores this time of year––they’re a bit too sweet for my tastes, with all that purple and green and yellow sugar. But the Polish bakeries will have pączki today, a rich filled doughnut, and the Swedish bakeries will have cream filled buns called semla. If they’re doing things right they’ll be selling them today but definitely not tomorrow and not again until next Shrovetide. In Germany, it is Fasnacht, and folks will be making doughnuts for the occasion this night (nacht) before the fast.

Seth and I, we’ll be making pancakes for our supper, and that is an old delicious tradition, one designed for times when Lent was much more restrictive than it is now. Nowadays all that the church asks of you is to pass up on meat on Fridays, but in ages past, folks had to give up meat for all forty days, and also eggs and all kinds of things we take for granted now. Making pancakes for supper on Shrove Tuesday was a way to use up all the eggs, all the milk, and all the sugar before the next day’s dawning brought Lent. We eat our pancakes with festivity and celebration. (Pancakes for supper? Of course they’ll be eaten with festivity and celebration!)

In the morning we awake to Ash Wednesday. I think a lot of us will choose to stay home this year, but typically, the churches are open, and if we have it in us, we go, and we approach that altar to have ashes smeared on our foreheads with the spoken reminder: Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return. Something we’ve pondered, in one way or another, most all of this past circle around the sun. We are made of the stuff of this earth and we shall return to it. But the stuff of this earth is made of the stuff of the stars, too, and that is something greater to ponder. If nothing else, these forty days that follow tonight’s pancake supper will hopefully remind us that life is short, and we would do well to live the time we have with compassion and kindness for our fellow human beings (and all sentient beings, as Seth’s mom says), and to love each day, and, as we like to say here, to live the ceremony of each day, too.

Image: “Shrovetide,” a painting by Igor Novikov, 2013. No pancakes or semla or pączki to be found in the picture, but it’s ok; I do love the painting. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

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10 thoughts on “Pancakes Tonight!

  1. Pamela Brooke says:

    John, I love the ways different countries use their eggs and milk on Shrove Tuesday. And the traditions behind Carnevale, Ash Wednesday and Lent. Such a provocative painting by Igor Novikov. So much to learn and love in this world. Thanks!

    • John Cutrone says:

      Thank you, Pamela! Someday I’ve got to get around to making the homemade doughnuts for Fasnacht! We have our friend Brad Oister’s grandmother’s recipe, which we will share in the real print version of the Convivio Book of Days, whenever that happens to wend its way to the world!

  2. Pamela Brooke says:

    btw, pączki is the word of the day from and now I know why!

  3. Allison Dennis says:

    Thanks for the reminder. I grew up in Wales and we always had pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Ours were thinner more like crepes with sultanas sprinkled on the batter in the pan , then tossed to brown both sides. It was great fun watching Mum toss them. Once cooked they were sprinkled with a little sugar and lemon juice and rolled up. They were stacked like logs and kept warm so the lemon and sugar melted together. Just yummy. I think I have just talked myself into Pancakes for dinner tonight too. Enjoy!

    • John Cutrone says:

      Yes, Allison! Do you happen to have a recipe you’d be willing to share? All of the old engravings I’ve seen for Shrove Tuesday feature cooks flipping pancakes, so I’ve always suspected the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake is more like a crepe. Here’s the image we used for the blog post for Shrove Tuesday a few years back:

      • Allison Dennis says:

        Here’s a recipe from Cookery in Colour by Marguerite Patten first published in 1960. Mine is a 1972 edition. And I have had it since then.
        4oz of plain flour, pinch of salt, 1 egg 10oz of milk or milk and water
        Sift the flour and salt, drop in the egg and beat well. Gradually beat in enough liquid to make a stiff smooth batter, with no lumps. Allow to stand for a few minutes then beat in the rest of the liquid. Put in the refrigerator for an hour or so and give it a whisk before pouring into a pan. Needless to say this was before the advent of blenders. These days I put all the ingredients in there vitamin and whoosh!
        PS this is also good for Yorkshire Pudding.

  4. Janet Bertinuson says:

    Following your example, John, we had pancakes (Norwegian) with savory and sweet fillings for Shrove Tuesday dinner. We got the recipe from Arne and Carlos, Norwegian knit designers. The pancakes are thinner, like crepes, and were absolutely wonderful.
    Thank you for the post and the dinner suggestion. We still have eggs left…oh well

    • John Cutrone says:

      Oh I know those Norwegian pancakes well! We had a Norwegian Nana in our lives for many years and my sister still occasionally makes her delicious pancakes and krumkake and riskrem recipes!

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