Forget Mardis Gras … It’s all about the pancakes

Many throughout the Western world are familiar with the French invention of Mardis Gras or “fat Tuesday.” Americans have taken this tradition and, of course, “Americanized” it, creating a day to feast on as much food (especially sweets) as possible. Specifically for adults, Mardis Gras has developed out of a New Orleans tradition as a night of parades, debauchery, drunkenness and hundreds of women exposing themselves to strangers in return for plastic green, yellow and purple beads.

In a very British tradition that is wholly unlike its American counterpart, “Shrove Tuesday” celebrates one thing: pancakes.

A Member of Parliament (serving in the House of Commons) runs and flips in Victoria Tower Gardens for the 2013 race.
A Member of Parliament (serving in the House of Commons) runs and flips in Victoria Tower Gardens for the 2013 race.

And pancake races. And something about penitence. But mostly just pancakes.

Shrove Tuesday was originally born as a Catholic tradition as a way to publicly confess sins before the liturgical season of Lent began (which was  called “shroving”).

Today the day is less about forgiveness and more about pancakes.

According to legend (and the BBC), in 1445 times, a woman was cooking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (which in England are more like crepes) and heard the church bell for mass. She was so flustered, she ran to the church, frying pan in hand.

And the pancake race was born.

Modern pancake races involve participants running with frying pans, flipping ready-made pancakes while running around a designated course. Winners raise money for charity, and teams often dress in silly outfits or chef’s gear.

I was fortunate enough to catch the Parliament Pancake Race 2013, in which famous MPs and members of the Press Corps tripped and flipped for fun photo ops though the course in Victoria Tower Gardens, which sits in the shadow of Westminster Palace (the House of Parliament).

The race only lasted about 15 minutes total, with each heat and announcing the winners. And really, watching politicians and journos run in suits and trainers while flipping, dropping and retrieving pancakes shouldn’t have been very entertaining. But it was.

My flatmate and I could not stop laughing at the powerful people in funny hats.

The hilarity had more to do with the absurdity of the event and the excitement of the crowd than anything else.

The Parliamentary version, while small, was one of a few well-known races in London proper. There were also races at Spitafields Market (The Great Spitafields Pancake Race), which I searched for and could not find, only later to learn the race was moved to a side street. There is also the Borough Market Pancake Race, in which foodies and chefs flip some flapjacks for fun.

Regardless of the type of Shrove Tuesday celebration, it’s an easy, simple way for Christians to celebrate the day before Lent begins. (And not as compromising as American Mardis Gras.)
(For more pancake race photos of MPs and some of my own English pancake-making adventure, check out!)