We didn’t call it “Fat Tuesday” when I was growing up. We knew that the religious context of the day, the last day of Shrovetide, deemed it Shrove Tuesday. But we didn’t call it that, either. We called it “Pancake Tuesday.” And the big news story of the day was always which housewife or young lady won the Pancake Race in Olney, Buckinghamshire. (Take a look at the photo in the linked article. It seems the transgender sports craze (and I use the word advisedly) hasn’t reached this sleepy little town yet. At least, not obviously. And if it’s not obvious, it probably hasn’t.)
The Pancake Race, like another historic Spring event, the Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling, has had its ups and downs over the years with the Health and Safety authorities of the nanny-state occasionally complaining, reacting to injuries, changing the rules and banning parts of the festivities outright. But both seem to be heartily enjoyed in the closing years of the second decade of the twenty-first century, and that is nice to see.
The legend of the Pancake Race is that it originated, sometime in the fifteenth century, with a woman who was making pancakes when she heard the church bell calling the parishioners to the Shrove Tuesday service. She ran to the church still in her kitchen working attire, with her pan and the pancake still in it, flipping the pancake (more about that later) as she went. The Race continued for centuries, lapsed during the World Wars, and was last revived in Olney, in 1948. In 1950, the Pancake Race went international, when the town of Liberal, Kansas, challenged Olney, and Olney and Liberal now compete annually, exchanging prizes for the winner. (Sort of like America’s Cup, only pancakes instead of yachts.)
I know you’re all fascinated by now, so if you’d like to run your own version of the Olney Pancake Race this year, here are a few more things to keep in mind: Rule #1, most importantly: Participants must be “housewives and young ladies of the town.” No celebrities. No politicians. No men, or faux-women (enjoy it while you still can, Olney, it’s just a matter of time). You must have a pancake pan (cast iron makes the best pancakes, but is hard on the wrists if you’re racing and flipping). You must wear a skirt, even if you wear leggings under it. You must wear an apron. You must cover your head. You must run approximately 400 meters (that’s about 65 lengths of my kitchen), from the market-place to the church. You must carry a frying pan with a pancake in it, and you must flip the pancake three times during the race, and as you cross the finish line.
Now, those pancakes: English pancakes are not like their fluffy, thick American cousins. They’re thin and delicate, and best served (my family thinks) sprinkled with a little sugar and drizzled with lemon juice. They’re very much like French crêpes. But English, of course. Anyhoo, here’s a recipe, courtesy of BBC Goodfood, if you’d like to try them.
And here is a rather Monty-Pythonesque rundown of the race, which shows the critical “flipping” action quite well (it’s easy once you get the hang of it). Don’t worry about the train bit at the beginning, it’s only about three seconds; the video is poorly trimmed. And at the end, as well. I was sorry not to see the rest of the story that starts out, “Up at Ashbourne, among the Dales of Derbyshire, they take their fun a little rougher . . .” But it ends there. Sigh:
This Shrove Tuesday, we’ll start the day at Chateau Right as we always do, with an English-style pancake breakfast. Then, I have scheduled a very mardi-gras treat for myself and one other in the afternoon. Sorry, you can’t join us. Perhaps we’ll invite you to share, vicariously and after the fact.
What are you doing, the week before Lent, to stock up on calories and richness? Even if you’re not super-observant (or even Christian), it’s a good excuse, isn’t it?