This coming Tuesday may be Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Carnival all over the world but leave it to the British to mark the day in a more subdued and moderate - but occasionally completely flaky - fashion.
Shrove Tuesday, which is the official British name for the day before the start of Lent, is so named for the act of "shriving" or confession and absolution, which, in the past, was customary on the day. People have eaten pancakes in England on Shrove Tuesday since the Reformation. Believe it or not, such frugal foods as eggs, milk and flour were once prohibited during Lent. Making pancakes was simply a way of clearing the larders of forbidden foods.
Today, Pancake Day is virtually secular. The custom of eating pancakes, as well as pancake tossing competitions and pancake races has spread from England to the rest of the United Kingdom. People of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds take part and supermarkets promote the key ingredients.
Don't expect a big stack of buttermilk flapjacks, though. British pancakes are more like crepes and while they can be filled or topped with almost anything, the most popular way to eat them is folded in quarters, with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of sugar.
Oh yes, about the completely flaky celebrations. In the Buckinghamshire town of Olney, "housewives" have been racing from the market square to the Church of St. Peter and Paul, pancake flipping all the way, on Shrove Tuesday for about 500 years. And, as in this archive photo from 1962, they still wear aprons and scarves and must toss their pancake three times during the race. The church that is their finish line, by the way, is where slave trader turned abolitionist John Newton was curate when he wrote the hymn 'Amazing Grace'.
- Read about Olney's 500-year pancake race tradition.
- Try a traditional recipe for Shrove Tuesday Pancakes.
- Get the low down on pancake races in London.