Back in England, we celebrate a holiday called Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Day. When I moved to the USA, I learned that this quaint, relatively quiet little British celebration is also celebrated here with a heavy Southern/French/party-all-night twist known as Mardi Gras.
My husband and I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras a few years ago and stayed in the middle of the French Quarter, where we tasted the food, heard the music, and saw the sights….and all I can say is “wow.”
Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday” in French, is so named since it is traditionally a time to use up fatty foods before Lent. This year’s event was Tuesday and is always celebrated 47 days before Easter Sunday. The date varies from year to year, but always falls between Feb. 3 and March 9.
However, the roots of this celebration go back to Europe. Shrove comes from the word “shrive,” meaning absolution for sins by doing penance. The historical root of this is the Christian tradition of being “shriven” before Lent — believers would go to confession to admit their sins to a priest and ask for absolution.
The very practical English solution to using up eggs and fats before Lent was to make pancakes. I adore American breakfast pancakes, which are smaller, rounder, thicker and fluffier than the British ones I grew up with. British pancakes are thin and flat, and served hot, traditionally with lemon juice and fine white caster sugar.
The tradition of using up tasty ingredients, which are forbidden during Lent, to make pancakes is thought to come from a pagan ritual when eating warm, round pancakes — symbolizing the sun — was a way of celebrating the arrival of spring. However, another school of thought says it is a Christian tradition, with each ingredient representing one of the four pillars of faith: eggs for creation, flour for sustenance, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. The tradition of flipping pancakes into the air dates back many centuries and is found in a number of ancient cook books. Remember, it is bad luck to drop a pancake when tossing it! There is more information at www.historic-uk.com
The British can be pretty eccentric and there are a number of pancake races on Shrove Tuesday when people run in fancy dress with frying pans, tossing pancakes as they go. The most famous pancake race takes place at Olney in Buckinghamshire where it started in 1445 when a woman heard the shriving bell and raced to church still clutching her frying pan. Participants today still wear an apron and hat or scarf.
A number of other places have variants on this race and many towns hold traditional football (soccer) games on Shrove Tuesday.
There are other delicious sweet treats eaten on Shrove Tuesday around the world, including the island of Madeira, which invented delicious donuts called malasadas — these are now also popular in Hawaii.
I was a little disappointed to learn not every culture indulges in sweet treats on Shrove Tuesday. In Spain they use up their eggs in omelettes and the day is known as “Omelette Day.” In Estonia and Iceland the traditional fare is a split pea soup. In Iceland they add smoked meat and for some reason call the day “Exploding Day.”
I will leave you with a Shrove Tuesday quote from 19th century American writer Mark Twain: “It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that … an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her PR agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com