by David Cecelski
Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While crowds celebrate the day with wild carnivals and drunken revelry in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, here in North Carolina we rather more calmly gather in church basements and parish halls and feast on pancakes.
Tomorrow night you will find a hearty supper of pancakes, sausage, and usually stewed apples or apple sauce at hundreds of our state’s churches. The maple syrup will be flowing fromAmazingGraceEvangelicalLutheranChurch in Waxhaw to St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville. These suppers are most popular in Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, but you’ll find plenty at Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, too.
The men’s club or youth group usually organizes the church’s pancake supper as a fundraiser for overseas missions, a summer field trip, or some other cause. This year I’ve noticed that a lot of churches are devoting their pancake profits to Haiti disaster relief.
The tradition of holding a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper has its roots in using up the rich milk, butter, and eggs that Catholic teachings historically discouraged during the 40 days of Lent. “Shrove,” by the way, means to find forgiveness for one’s sins through confession and penance, and it’s a day to reach a kind of purity before Lent. The pancake tradition dates back well into the Middle Ages.
Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers are also enjoyed in theUnited Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, and Australia, where the day is often simply called “Pancake Day.” In much of Europe, the food of the day is some other kind of rich treat, like French crepes, Germanfastnacht, Lithuanian spurgos, Swedish semla (a sweet bun), or Polish paczki (a donut).
Many churches here combine their Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers with other events. I’ve attended quite a few church talent shows on Shrove Tuesday (always a hoot). Other congregations have “Mardi Gras” celebrations for the kids, a Bingo night, or some other little entertainment.
At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper has been held in conjunction with the church’s annual White Elephant Sale since 1951. The church’s youth group sponsors the pancake supper, while the church’s women’s group, the St. Cecelia Circle, runs the sale. They devote their profits to scholarships and youth projects.
While straight-up flapjacks are the norm, some churches do go pretty wild when it comes to their pancakes. Last year, at St. Phillip the Evangelist Anglican Church, in Charlotte, one of the Shrove Tuesday supper entrees was chocolate chip pancakes with blueberry syrup and cherry toppings. My son says he’d like to go to that church.
Finally, I know of at least one congregation—First Presbyterian Church in Burlington—that holds Pancake Races during its Shrove Tuesday supper. That is not as wacky as it sounds—or at least it’s wacky in a very old tradition of wackiness.
In England, Shrove Tuesday pancake races date at least to the 15th century. They usually involve apron-clad women racing toward a finish line, while they flip pancakes on a frying pan. (And who wouldn’t want to see that?).
The races originated, so it’s said, in a housewife hearing the local church bells ring while she was still frying pancakes. According to legend, she inadvertently raced to the church with her frying pan still in hand. To this day, Shrove Tuesday pancake races are held inEngland, with the most famous, in Olney, in Buckinghamshire, having occurred since 1445.