Reprint: 1995 Family Digest; 2012 Lutheran Digest
Pancakes—flat cakes of batter cooked on a pan or griddle—have long been featured on the American breakfast table. Pancake houses are also found throughout the United States. Pancakes can be as small as a silver dollar or as large as the plate itself. They can be stacked high or short. They can be rolled or flat, spread with jam, butter, syrup or powdered sugar, or have a wide variety of a flavored filling. Pancakes are probably the oldest form of bread, and by tradition have been associated with Lenten foods.
The connection pancakes have as a Lenten food is in fasting. In the Bible, fasting was a Jewish custom observed prior to a major spiritual event. Thus it seemed only natural for the early Christians, raised with Jewish rites, to set aside a season called Lent, for prayer and fasting prior to the celebration of the Easter feast.
During the first centuries of Christianity, fasting practices were strict and harsh, which made the days preceding the fast a time to feast and make merry. A feast was also a good way to use of some foods not allowed during the fast, such as “flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, eggs” decreed in 604 A.D. by Pope Gregory the Great.
During the Middle Ages in many European countries, the three days of feasting and revelry that preceded the Lenten fast were called carnival, meaning “farewell to meat.” Because of the using up of the forbidden Lenten foods during carnival days, these days received many names. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday came to be called “Fat Days” in Poland and “Butter Week” in Russia. It was known as “Mardi Gras” in France and “Fetter Dienstag” in Germany (both mean Fat Tuesday). Monday in England was “Collup” (for sliced meat) and Tuesday was “Guttit Tuesday” or “Goodish Day” because of all the good foods to feast upon. It was also known as Pancake Tuesday.
Another name for Pancake Tuesday during medieval times was Shrove Tuesday. The name came from the practice of Christians going to confession (being “shriven”) in order to prepare for Lent. Pancakes or Shriving cakes happened to become associated with each other because of a bell. The shriving bell that called people to confession also called young apprentices and others to get ready to make pancakes.
Legend tells us the shriving bell was the cause of the start of a contest in Olney, England in 1445. A housewife was in the middle of making bread and hearing the shriving bell, rushed out the door, still flipping pancakes upon her arrival at the church. From that developed a women’s annual pancake race to the church while holding a griddle and pancake. Since 1950, a group of American women from the town of Liberal, Kansas, have competed in their own pancake race, comparing their race results with the women racers in Olney, England.
The pancake itself is well known and comes in different forms in different countries. The Encyclopedia of Foods lists a few of the better known varieties. The small “blini,” from Poland and Russia, is spread with caviar or smoked salmon and topped with sour cream. A ‘blintz” of Jewish cuisine, is fried thin and stuffed with cheese or fruits. The Italian “cannelloni” is rolled up with a seasoned chicken, vegetable or meat mixture and covered with a sauce. The French “crepe” can be filled with meat, poultry, cheese, jam, fruit or sugar. The Swedish “Flaeskpannkaka” is topped with pork and bacon slices.
Likewise, America also has a history of pancake names. The earliest known pancake seems to be the Narraganset Indians’ “nokehick” which is soft. “Johnnycakes,” made with cornmeal, have been around since 1739. Nobody really knows the source of the name. Some say it comes from the Indian word “joniken” or “Shawneecake” from the Shawnee Indian tribe. Others say the name derived from “journey cake” because it was easy to prepare ina pan over a fire when traveling.
Depending on which area of the country in which you live, you could be eating “hoe cakes” (cooked on a flat hoe head and held over the fire), batter cakes, griddle cakes, flapjacks or slapjacks. If you worked for a mining company, you would call them “flannel cakes” for a string of flats or flatcars. A logger calls them “sweatpads.” It wasn’t until the 1870’s that the prevailing name became “pancake.”
Whatever pancakes are called, or whatever ingredients they are made of, I for one won’t save mine only for a pre-Lenten fast. I like to eat mine any day with maple syrup while they’re hot off the griddle.
Carole Christman Koch grew up in Berks County and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to raising children to humorous stories about her and her husband to everyday stories to season stories and more.