Laura Dean Bennett
Have you ever wondered why there are so many pancake suppers this time of year?
It could have something to do with the fact that, for centuries, on the church calendar, this is the season before Lent.
Shrove Tuesday, also known in many countries as Pancake Day, is the day before Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent.
Dating back to 1,000 AD, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and Easter have created many symbolic and durable customs among Christians all around the world.
Shrove Tuesday’s secular name – Pancake Day – comes from the practicality of enjoying and using up all the fattening food in the house before the Lenten fasts begin.
As is true today, eggs, cream and butter were the richest foods in a household’s larder.
These ingredients were combined with flour to make pancakes – a food common to all cultures and walks of life.
Shrove Tuesday got its name from the word “shrive” meaning to make confession and to do penance to receive absolution of one’s sins so as to prepare for the holy season of Lent.
Lent is a 40-day season of fasting – Sundays not included – when “fat” foods are restricted.
For some denominations, Lent ends on the Saturday before Easter, for others it ends on Maundy Thursday.
Shrove Tuesday pancake races and pancake tossings became popular in Britain during the Middle Ages, and those traditions remain to this day.
For English ladies interested in love and possible proposals of marriage, Shrove Tuesday could be particularly enlightening. Most households and communities held pancake feasts where the honor of tossing the first pancake would fall to the eldest unmarried daughter in every family.
These young ladies would endeavor to perfectly prepare and flip a pancake. If they managed it, and if their pancake was well-made with no blemishes, it was said that the lady would have countless suitors in the year ahead.
If the pancake fell to the floor or was in any way spoiled, then her prospects for marriage were dim.
The customs of singing, dancing and parades on Shrove Tuesday continue in Germany and Switzerland and among the Pennsylvania Dutch. During their Fastnacht, pancakes of fried potato dough, covered in corn syrup or powdered sugar are served up to family and friends.
In Sweden, Shrove Tuesday bears the name of Fettisdagen and they serve a pastry called semla – a marzipan and whipped cream filled cardamom bun or a sweet bun flavored with almond paste and served with whipped cream.
And, interestingly enough, the semla’s claim to fame is that it is so irresistible that it can cause a person to eat themselves to death.
And that’s exactly what one Swedish king did. His Highness, Adolf Frederic, died on Fettisdagen in 1771 after eating a rich meal and finishing with who knows how many semlas and champagne.
In Portugal, the delicacy for Shrove Tuesday is malasada – delicious fried doughnuts made with a batter of eggs and milk and sprinkled with sugar.
Naturally, with their reputation for elaborate cuisine, the Italians and the French had many recipes for Shrove Tuesday cakes, pastries and rich food. They celebrated with parties the week before and on Shrove Tuesday.
It’s easy to see how Shrove Tuesday became known as Fat Tuesday or, as they say in France – and New Orleans – “Mardi Gras.”
Like the rest of Europe, Shrove Tuesday had been a holiday in France since the Middle Ages.
But it wasn’t until the late 17th century French colonial period in New Orleans that Mardi Gras began to be celebrated on Shrove Tuesday there.
It began with typical Shrove Tuesday feasting and a carnival atmosphere, complete with music, street dancers and parades.
Rumor has it that the inclusion of dressing up in costumes as part of the carnival came about in 1827.
Legend has it that students recently returned from school in Paris donned outrageous costumes and danced their way through New Orleans’ streets during Mardi Gras.
The young people had apparently experienced this sort of revelry during Shrove Tuesday celebrations in Paris.
How ever it came about, it didn’t take long for the costume idea to catch on in New Orleans.
By 1833, Mardi Gras in New Orleans included a grand masked ball and the rest, as they say, is history.
Many countries around the world have Mardi Gras celebrations and carnivals – one of the most famous being the one held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
This year, Shrove Tuesday, or International Pancake Day, is February 25.
Here, in this county, we have two compelling reasons for our pancake breakfasts and pancake suppers – the approach of Shrove Tuesday and the advent of our maple syrup season.