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Pancake Tuesday

(article, Sharon Hunt)

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For his argument about the need to abstain from certain foods during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, the Dominican monk and medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas would have found a kindred spirit in my maternal grandmother, a staunch Church of England Anglican. 

According to Aquinas, meat, eggs, and dairy products “afford greater pleasure as food \[than fish\], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.”  

“Hurrah!” Mom Skanes would have shouted, always eager to share in Christ’s suffering, but especially so during the Lenten season.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Sharon Hunt's family's pancakes."]

While Aquinas would have appreciated her zeal, he most likely would have rebuffed her insistence on a "last reprieve" on each Shrove Tuesday. The day before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day, Pancake Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, and Mardi Gras, among other names. It's the day to empty the pantry of those nasty indulgences, using them up by making pancakes that are then smothered with more lust-inducing butter.

Mom Skanes insisted that you suffer right along with her and the Savior. “Eat up and enjoy,” she would say, “because starting tomorrow, there will be no chocolate or sugar until Easter.” 

She was a fierce woman, a Newfoundlander whose ancestors fled poverty and persecution in England, only to land on an even harsher shore where poverty and persecution remained. They hunkered down, though, and kept their traditions alive, passing them on to the next generation. 

One of the traditions Mom Skanes inherited was the name Shrove Tuesday; that’s what the day was to her, nothing else and nothing less. After all, it was a religious day — "shrove" being the past tense of "shrive," which means to confess your sins — and a religious day demanded a proper name.

We, her grandchildren, caring not a hoot for the religious aspect of the day — thereby further imperiling our eternal souls — called it Pancake Tuesday. We should have cared that she spent more time than she should have had to, praying that Heaven’s gates would open for us, but we didn’t. We just cared about the mountain of pancakes that would be our supper — not because we loved pancakes, but because we loved the dimes and quarters, and sometimes silver dollars, pressed into the batter as the pancakes fried.

Little heathens all, we probably should have gotten the nails some people hid in pancakes (as a symbol that the recipient would be a carpenter or would marry one), but we still expected and received coins that were scalded three times before becoming part of the batter. I didn’t care about that, either, being happy to risk a little poisoning for enough money to buy a new Nancy Drew.  

Because we also had Irish and Scottish ancestors, their traditions occasionally came into play as well. Rosalyn, the eldest granddaughter on my father’s side, gladly tossed the first pancake, hoping more that it didn’t land on the floor than wishing she would marry within the year, as this Irish tradition promised. She started tossing pancakes at age 10 but had the good sense not to marry until she was in her 20s.    

If Great-Aunt Florence arrived from Boston, where she lived all of her adult life, she would support the Scottish side of things with oatcakes called bannocks, placing a charm in the dough. The unmarried person who found the charm she brought with her from the city — a little silver heart — was, again, promised marriage within the year. The promise was an empty one, though, because Florence herself usually found the charm, and she died a spinster at 94. 

Despite my never finding the charm, I loved being around Great-Aunt Florence. She was charming and sophisticated and balanced woolen tams colored teal, scarlet, emerald, or sapphire on her egg-shaped head; the floppy hats reminded me of jewel-toned pancakes.

[%image newsletter-image float=left width=400 caption="Pancake payday."]

My other grandmother, Mom Hunt, was given more to superstition than Mom Skanes, believing that the first three pancakes were sacred. This is hard to understand, as anyone who's cooked pancakes knows that the first few are always failures. No matter how well-greased the pan or carefully combined the batter, these initial offerings turn out rubbery or oddly shaped. Regardless, or perhaps because of this, she marked each with a cross as it was frying, to ward off evil, and then set the trio aside; for whom or what I never knew, but those pancakes were not to be eaten. 

As family legend has it, one of my boy cousins once took off down the snowy garden with the three sacred pancakes in hand, intent on some desecration or other, until our five-foot-tall grandmother roared at him to bring them back or suffer the eternal fires of damnation. Since she was also "sensitive" (known as someone who was visited by ghosts), he probably decided that she had special access to God and slunk back to beg forgiveness.  

We never knew who the cousin was, because Mom Hunt was so flummoxed that one of her own would do such a thing that she refused to utter his name. For a long time after, I listened for the name not uttered, but his identity remained a secret.

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There was no secret, however, to the lure of Pancake Tuesday’s pancakes. It was the coins, since the pancakes themselves tasted like any others, their blandness always improved with corn syrup or blueberry sauce. But those coins compelled us children to weld our knives like surgeons, cutting up more pancakes than we could possibly eat, although the scraps didn’t go to waste. They were brought to the dump, for the mangy dogs that haunted the heaps of garbage. (Like all God’s creatures, I learned, they had a right to “greater pleasure,” too.)

Pancakes are older than Aquinas’ worries about the evils that some food can inspire. In the first century A.D., Apicius, the Roman gourmet and one of the first food writers, described a batter of flour, water, milk, and eggs that, when fried, was served with honey. And pancakes are believed to go back even further, perhaps to the caves, when men and women were just beginning to desire something more to eat than the usual creature crackling in the fire.  

Shrove Tuesday, however, is newer, only about 1,000 years old. Still, on that day in each of those years, observant families cooked some form of "pan cake" as their last reprieve from the coming deprivation.

This year, on February 21, I will again scald dimes and quarters, set aside the first three pancakes, and most of all, remember the smiles and laughter that were part of my family’s Shrove Tuesday celebrations.


p(bio). Sharon Hunt's articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Reader's Digest, The Globe and Mail, Shambhala Sun, and Edible Toronto._ She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in a family of superb cooks and bakers.

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