Pancake Day vs. Mardi Gras
It’s Pancake Day!! I remember the first time I heard this. “What? You have a special day to celebrate pancakes?” After 9/11 in September 2001, I had moved to London permanently in October to start my MBA programme and finally live under the same roof as my fiancé. It had been a long winter, with really cold nights and very dark days. Our windows had been painted shut by the landlord, and I was feeling very shut in. My man had been working lots of overtime, and we had not been able to spend much time together. I had filled my time with my studies, because I was determined to maintain a perfect grade point average in my first year.
Pancake Day is celebrated on Shrove Tuesday. It is the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent. Being from Texas, and being non-Catholic, I had never heard of Shrove Tuesday. Ash Wednesday was familiar to me, having had friends that were Catholic and I myself went to mass regularly while I was at university. However, while Shrove Tuesday had not been on my radar, Fat Tuesday had been! As a neighbour to Louisiana, Fat Tuesday was very well-known and Mardi Gras was what I was more familiar with.
In true British fashion, instead of Mardi Gras, they had Pancake Day. I say “true British fashion” because somehow, they have their own little quirky way of doing things. It can be both charming and weird at the same time, which is perfectly fine. While Pancake Day is on Shrove Tuesday, my first year in London found me in Covent Garden on the Saturday prior to watch Pancake Races. This will give a clue as to the legend.
Pancakes are made with eggs, milk, sugar and fat. These are considered “rich” foods and need to be used up before Lent. Making pancakes is a perfect way to use these. Imagine a lady in her house, making pancakes to use up these ingredients. Back then, Shrove Tuesday was a half-day and the 11:00am church bell indicated the work day was over and a mass would begin. There is a legend that states in 1445, a housewife was making her pancakes and lost track of time. Suddenly, she heard the local church bells and realised she would be late for church. So, with pan still in hand, she ran out the door and headed to church, flipping the pancake as she went so it wouldn’t burn.
How quirky that it is THIS part of the Shrove Tuesday tradition that the British choose to celebrate. And this is why I was at Covent Garden to see the Pancake Races. Company teams were competing for pride and prestige. The races were made up of a goofy obstacle course. It all looked really fun, despite it being so cold. On this particular race day, the comedienne Jo Brand was on hand to make some jokes and kick off the race. I distinctly remember her reading the jokes from an index card in this crass, apathetic voice and delivering “adult” jokes at a clearly family event. The one about Barbie and Ken and GI Joe was both tired and inappropriate. This was my first introduction to British humour, and I have never liked Jo Brand. (Since moving to London that previous September, I had filled my television time with Friends reruns.)
Pancake Day is such a stark contrast to Mardi Gras. While pancakes are made to use up the last of the rich food in the house with efficiency, Mardi Gras has always been about excess and gusto! Eat all you want, drink all you want. Indulge in the Kings Cake, drink as many Hurricanes as you can, and show off your boobies for some plastic beads! Somehow, Mardi Gras seems to be more fun. Yet, here I am, living in London and finding sheer joy in making pancakes. Maybe it is because Shrove Tuesday falls at a time when we have always had a long winter, and any form of lightness or fun entertainment is very welcomed.
Now — let’s talk about these pancakes. They are NOT American pancakes. They are crepes. A moment please to note that in all my years of living here, I have not come across a restaurant that can actually do justice to American-style pancakes. They try. I have had flat ones, greasy ones, cakey ones, and they have come in all shapes and sizes. They are ok. They will do. They are NOT real American pancakes. Which is why I have no qualms about the pancakes on Pancake Day being crepes. Crepes are awesome! Crepes are delicious. Crepes are FRENCH! Now, that should really be the kicker here —- because the British really do have a long-lasting hate with the French and anything of the sort. It is so ironic, so typically British that the pancakes are crepes! Maybe I have somehow developed my British sense of humour and I adore Pancake Day because of this one fact — crepes are French!
Do I miss Mardi Gras? Yes, I do. In fact, as I write this, I am mentally scanning my kitchen ingredients to consider if I have enough stuff to make some kind of shrimp creole. I know I have some frozen shrimp (ok, they are prawns —meaning they are tiny — but they will work), and some frozen okra and some rice. I bet I could easily whip up a version of creole, I have plenty of Tony Cachere’s seasoning on hand —- like a good southern girl should! I know that my little plastic baby is floating around in my cake decorating kit, so I could employ my bread machine to knead up some dough for a Kings Cake, even if I don’t have coloured sugar on hand for decoration. That baby can do the heaving lifting! (Explanation: there is a plastic baby hidden in a Kings Cake and the one that finds it has good luck. Sometimes coins are used.)
Sounds like alot of work, doesn’t it? And so this is why Pancake Day is a decent substitute. Making crepes (ha!) is easy and requires very few ingredients. It’s the lazy way of celebrating Shrove Tuesday. I’ll probably make the shrimp creole and the pancakes, skipping the Kings Cake. I don’t have all the ingredients to justify a decent Kings Cake anyway. (lemon and orange zest are a must, but alas I am out of citrus fruits.
Being a previous participant in Mardi Gras celebrations, I have a large collection of beads. It is obvious that the bead thing doesn’t happen here. What with the weather being so cold, the idea of pulling up my top for a plastic necklace while sober really doesn't appeal. My beads are a memory of fun and frolic of my past. Today, I will be teaching an online class to 7-12 year olds about Romans, Vikings, Monks and Kings. When I get to the part about the kings, I wear a plastic crown and some Mardi Gras beads with little crowns and a fleur de lis. Unless they read this blog, they’ll never know!