Shrove Tuesday

'Pancake Day' Explained

Catherine Fournier

I remember Pancake Day from my childhood. A bizarre tradition, one that turned my mother's nutritional schedule upside down, one that transformed math class into a picnic in our school rooms. Though I asked, there was little or no explanation for the inexplicable adult actions, and offered plates of pancakes brimming with butter and dripping with syrup, I didn't question the matter too closely.

During my first Lenten season as a Catholic, I finally began to gain some understanding and explanation for this strange habit. Actually not so strange at all, it makes perfect sense when viewed in a liturgical light, as does all of Catholic tradition.

Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras or fetter Dienstag) is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Since Lent is a time of abstinence, traditionally of meat, fat, eggs and dairy products (one wonders what was left) Shrove Tuesday's menu was designed to use up all the fat, eggs and dairy products left in the kitchen and storeroom. It is also a 'feast' to prepare for the time of 'famine' in the desert. In some cultures, it is traditional to eat as much as possible on Shrove Tuesday, sometimes up to 12 times a day.

The English term "shrovetide" (from "to shrive", or hear confessions) is explained by a sentence in the Anglo-Saxon "Ecclesiastical Institutes" translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric (q.v.) about A.D. 1000: "In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then my hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]".

In many traditions, Lent is a time for cleaning, in preparation for Easter and spring. First your soul, then your kitchen, then the rest of the house was cleansed and purified of the past year's accumulations. Old clothes are mended, and new clothes purchased at this time of year. In the Ukraine, houses were whitewashed inside and out during Lent. In this way, everything was made ready to face the season of Salvation and Rebirth. Traditions of 'spring cleaning' stem from this religious observance.

Pancake Recipes:

Plain Mlyntsi (Griddle Cakes)


  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup milk


  • Place the dry ingredients in a bowl, stir them together well with a fork.
  • Add the remaining ingredients and beat well with a manual or electirc beater until thoroughly blended.
  • Heat a heavy griddle or frying pan, cast iron is best. Grease the pan lightly with a few drops of oil.
  • Test the griddle with a few drops of cold water. The griddle is hot enough when the drops keep a globular shape and skitter across the pan. If the water spreads out, the pan is too cool. If they evaporate immediately, the pan is too hot, and the cakes will burn.
  • Pour the batter into the pan with a small scoop or measuring cup to form cakes about 3 inches in diameter.
  • Cook the cakes until bubbles break on the surface, flip them quickly and cook the other side.
  • Do not turn more than once.
  • Serve very hot with syrup, honey, or thick sour cream.
Oatmeal Apple Pancakes

Ingredients: (for 1 2/3 inch pancakes)

  • 1 cup oatmeal
  • 2 cup buttermilk, or sour milk (1 cup milk plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
  • 2 egg
  • 2 tablespoon oil
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 apple, chopped into small pieces
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon, if desired


  • Place the oatmeal and buttermilk together in a large bowl. Allow to soak for a few minutes.
  • Add the egg and oil, and cinnamon if using. Stir well.
  • Add the flour, salt and baking soda and stir until well blended.
  • Heat a heavy frying pan. Grease lightly with oil.
  • Pour about 1/3 cup batter into the pan with a small measuring cup.
  • Bake the pancake until bubbles break on the surface, flip quickly and bake the other side. Make sure the pancakes are baked through.
  • Keep the pancakes warm in a warm oven until all are done.
  • Serve hot.
Potato Pancakes

Crisp and brown, these are great with sour cream or yogurt, bacon and applesauce. This year, I'm going to try cooking them in the waffle iron.

Ingredients: (for nine 3 1/2 inch pancakes)

  • 3 medium potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 tablespoon cream
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • salt
  • 4 tablespoons bacon fat or oil


  • Wash and grate the potatoes.
  • Place the potatoes on a double thickness of paper towels, fold the towels around them and twist and squeeze until most of the moisture is removed.
  • Unwrap the potatoes and dump them in a bowl.
  • Add the flour, cream, egg, and salt and toss until mixed.
  • Heat the fat or oil in a skillet.
  • Put about 2 tablespoons of the potato mixture in the pan.
  • Press and shape the pancakes into a flat 3 1/2 inch cake. Repeat until pan is full but not crowded.
  • Cook each pancake about 5 minutes over medium low heat until the bottom is crisp and brown.
  • Turn and cook the other side for 5 minutes more.
  • Keep warm in a 300* oven until all are ready. Serve.

Book related to this story ...
get the book at
Arts and Crafts for Lent: From Mardi Gras to Passiontide, With Prayers and Blessings for Family, School and Church by Jeanne Heiberg
Price $9.56


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