(For the best resolution of the images, click them to open the slideshow.)
So it is with great pleasure that I finally, finally, finally made it to the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Races accompanied by the gorgeous Annie of MontgomeryFest fame - the taco-adoring Southern belle who helped us plan our Louisiana roadtrip escapades making it our best holiday ever. With her and her husband having moved over to London from Louisiana (via Brussels and San Francisco), I wanted to share with her some of my London, that crazy traditional history side that keeps the magic of my adoptive city alive (and if you don't agree you are a muggle, fact.)
So, Pancake Day - or Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras - is the traditional feast day before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Lent - the 40 days leading up to Easter - is traditionally a time of fasting and on Shrove Tuesday, Anglo-Saxon Christians went to confession and were "shriven" (absolved from their sins).
The actual tradition of mixing the ingredients up for pancakes is thought to come from a pagan ritual or a Christian tradition, with each ingredient representing one of the four pillars of the faith. Eggs for creation, flour sustenance or the staff of life, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. Alls I know is that most people now enjoy them because they are tasty.
The pancake features in cookbooks as far back as 1439 and the idea of tossing them is almost as old. "And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne." (Pasquil's Palin, 1619).
There are several events around London where tossers wield their batter filled pans (with freshly cooked pancakes obviously) but I had my heart set on the races held by the London Livery companies who run the event to raise money for charity (who also hold the annual Sheep race on London Bridge.) Whilst I described the Livery Guilds in the City of London as "basically business orientated mafia", most of the Guilds began life in medieval times as a loose association of tradesman with similar interests, before growing into what were essentially trade bodies. (For more history see here - I'd really recommend a look.)
Each heat kicks off with a bang from the Gunmakers livery as 21 teams of four race around Guildhall Yard to win frying pan trophies. Organised by the Poulter's Company (who donate the eggs too), pancake making essentials are supplied by other livery companies - lemons from the Fruiters, Gloves from the Clothmakers, plastic forks from the Cutlers — even the Clockmakers get involved in timing each race. Flipping kicks off at noon with all team members running in their regalia or chosen fancy dress. I read one source that claimed you can only take part if you're in a Livery company associated with making pancakes but we saw people from all kinds of Livery companies including the Marketors.
And of course, any excuse for the usually quite reserved Brits to dress up...
I mean, where else in the world could you witness Albert Einstein racing a Church Organ, armed with a frying pan?
Or perhaps a Turkey racing a Horse Jockey, arms loaded with sweet fried goods?
Legend has it that tossing originated in the sleepy town of Olney when a housewife, consumed with the business of pancake making, forgot herself entirely until hearing the church bells when she raced out the house – complete with frying pan and pancake.
And where else could they hold it, bar in the vicinity of Milk Street and Honey Lane?
Are there any unique local traditions around your neck of the woods?
* I'm also going to be a crotchety old lady
** By which I mean older than I am now
*** Terrible grammar and all