The pagan roots of pancake day: Why do we eat pancakes one Tuesday each Year?

English-style pancakes with lemon and sugar, traditional for Shrove Tuesday
English-style pancakes with lemon and sugar, traditional for Shrove Tuesday | Image: Shutterstock

Everyone knows that around the end of winter/beginning of spring, a Tuesday is given over to making and eating pancakes, a perfect blend of eggs, flour and milk, seasoned with a pinch of salt and fried in butter, flipped (insert disaster here) and served with a sweet topping. And it would seem that we have the Romans to thank for the recipe. It first appeared in “Apicius” (also known as “De re culinarian” or “De re coquinaria” which means ‘on the subject of cooking’) around the 1st century and has pretty much remained unchanged to the present. Save a quite remarkable deviation in a book published in London in 1737.

The title is a little long, 'The whole duty of a woman, or, an infallible guide to the fair sex: containing rules, directions, and observations, for their conduct and behaviour through all ages and circumstances of life, as virgins, wives, or widows: with rules and receipts in every kind of cookery'. Within, the unknown author, suggests a recipe of eighteen egg yolks, cream and wine. By way of recompense to this projected abomination she (or he) also published the first-ever recipe for Yorkshire Pudding or Dripping Pudding as it’s called here. Dripping Pudding was first called ‘Yorkshire’ Pudding twelve years later in 'The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple', by Hannah Glasse, who lived her entire life in London…

The ‘shrove’ in Shrove Tuesday comes from the word ‘shrive’ which means ‘absolve’, so the day is intended to be as much about the admission of sins and absolution as it is eating cooked batter. Pancake races, held up and down the UK on Shrove Tuesday, were inspired by an English housewife who, late for confession, was forced to toss pancakes as she rushed to her appointment with a priest. But the tradition of eating lots of food before the forty days of Lent is celebrated all over the world, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) for example, is based around the eating of all the rich, fattening, fun-foodstuffs on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

As for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the previous day’s feasting is forgotten, devotees are reminded of their Christian duties by having the ash of the previous year's Easter palm trees marked on their foreheads in the shape of the cross. On the surface, this is to remind the bearer that 'you are dust, and to dust, you shall return', which is reinforced by another 39 days of self-denial. However, the origins of the pancake are pagan and, originally, had nothing to do with Lent.

In pre-Christianity, the pancake marked the start of spring, the colour, shape, even the heat, of the pancake symbolised the sun: the return of light after the dark winter months. Indeed, ‘Lent’ comes from ‘Lencten’ which is an old English/Germanic word meaning ‘lengthening’ referring to the lengthening days of spring. As for the forty-day fast, there is no specific directive in the bible to fast for forty days, so it would seem that ‘forty’ has been appropriated from the forty days/nights Jesus’ spent fasting in the wilderness. The same period of the time ancient Egyptians fasted in honour of Osiris, the god of fertility and nature, thousands of years earlier.

Ash Wednesday also has provenance in antiquity, Wednesday was the day to honour the Norse god Odin by sprinkling ashes on the forehead. But the Christian version of Ash Wednesday arguably derives from the first century when Romans’ inscribed the Tau Cross onto their foreheads as a symbol of devotion to Mithras, at about the same time as Christianity was gaining in popularity.

But these are just semantics, the fact is that on Shrove Tuesday, we eat pancakes. The only real question is what goes on top? The original recipe in Apicius suggests pepper and honey, more recently, lemon and sugar seem to be firm favourites, with savoury toppings creeping into the equation too. But if you’re eating veriohukainen or blodplättar in Scandinavia you’ll probably go for lingonberry jam, something sweet to counter the taste of the fresh blood that’s generously added to the batter. Smaklig måltid!