Photo by erin.kkr/FlickrCC
My Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is known simply as Pancake Day. Celebrations are generally limited to scarfing endless flat griddlecakes until the belly can hold no more, and the required costume is a batter-splattered apron.
This is not a curious, self-constructed excuse for gluttony. I spent much of my youth in England, where the day before the Christian season of Lent begins is dedicated to the mass consumption of this slim, buttery, tender cake and where Pancake Day is officially part of the nation's calendar. Brits have taken to occasionally racing with pancakes as well, flipping them with great speed whilst running toward a finishing line. The most famous of these races takes place in London outside the House of Parliament, where politicians in aprons and chefs' hats and brandishing frying pans and hotcakes compete against journalists.
I slathered the pancakes with Nutella, peanut butter, jam, and maple syrup as we talked of My Little Pony, our secret crushes, and braiding our hair.
Though it shares the same ingredients as the French crêpe, the English pancake is really a creature quite unlike any other. Flour, eggs, milk, melted butter, and a little sugar are whisked together, and the mixture is left to stand for 20 to 30 minutes for a full-bodied batter. While the crêpe master makes a large, papery thin sheet on a searingly hot griddle, the pancake chef favors a smaller hand-sized disc, a little thicker, a little chewier, and dimpled with golden blisters.
Compared to the rich potato doughnuts drenched in dark corn syrup enjoyed in Pennsylvania Dutch country on this day, or Louisiana's yeasted and braided King Cakes, the humble pancake may seem relatively innocuous. But whether covered in sugar and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice or wrapped around thick chocolate ganache or strawberry preserves, a properly cooked pancake is light, moist, crisp and wispy at the edges, and supple in the middle.
In my many years celebrating Pancake Day, the holiday has come to mean more to me than just an excuse to pig out. When as a six-year-old I arrived in London from Malaysia, where I was born, acclimatizing to my new world was an adventure both bewildering and exciting. I recall going to my first Pancake Day fiesta at a schoolmate's house. As her mother flipped away in the kitchen and decorated our plates with pancake after pancake, my "new girl" nerves fizzled away. I slathered the pancakes with Nutella, peanut butter, jam, and maple syrup as we talked of My Little Pony, our secret crushes, and braiding our hair.
My high school, Westminster, a private school in the heart of London that dates back to before the 12th Century, has held a bizarre Pancake Day ritual since the 1750s. (Incidentally, I was one of only 130 girls amongst more than 700 boys.) During the "Greaze," the school's head cook tosses a horsehair-reinforced pancake—no horses are hurt in the process, I promise—over a high bar. A group of rambunctious students then fight for the pancake for one minute refereed by the headmaster and the occasional royal visitor. The pupil who gets the most amount of pancake is awarded a gold coin. The best part is that the whole school then gets the rest of the day off. Originally, if the cook failed to get the pancake over the bar he would get stoned with heavy Latin books. This part of the tradition has long been phased out.