The verb to shrive is one I’ve never given much thought to, but when asked by a Hungarian friend to explain the origins of Shrove Tuesday, I had to do some digging. My simple explanation – it’s the last day of gorging ourselves before we start fasting for the 40 days of Lent, the period leading up to Holy Week and Easter Sunday – wasn’t enough. They were more concerned with the word shrove.
The verb, to shrive, means to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve or to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution. And yes, typically, we’d go to confession on Shrove Tuesday so that we could ready ourselves for Lent with a clean soul (am sure we used to go from the school to 10 am mass in the morning). So it makes sense. But from a practical standpoint, it’s about clearing your fridge of the stuff you won’t be eating while fasting: eggs, milk, sugar, and salt – and in my case, butter. Lots of butter. I can’t have pancakes without slathering them in butter. Not for me the prim and proper sugar and lemon or the indulgent maple syrup or jam – I’m all for the fat. Butter all the way.
But there’s a twist on the ingredients, which are said, in some circles, to represent the four pillars of Christian faith. Creation (eggs), sustenance (flour), wholesomeness (salt) and purity (milk). Mind you, I’d always thought the four pillars of faith were profession (the Creed), mystery (the Sacraments), morality (the Commandments), and prayer. But there you have it.
It the States, it’s Fat Tuesday, from the French Mardi Gras. Think carnival time, partying, the last hurrah. The Italian martedì grasso, and the Portuguese terça-feira gorda, go with that, too, while the German Fastnacht and the Dutch Vastenavond (eve of the fast) are thinking in terms of the fast about to begin. In Irish, today is known as Máirt na hInide (Shrove Tuesday), or Lá na bPancóg (Pancake day) but mostly we call it Pancake Tuesday.
It was the one day of the year when I’d know for certain, that when I came home from school, there’d be pancakes. Later on, when I could see over the cooker, I even got to try my hand at flipping them. Superstition had it that if you tossed a pancake and it fell flat on the pan, you’d be standing before the priest by the end of the year – with a man at your side. I could never get the hang of it, which probably explains a lot. I read somewhere that back in 1563, a papal decree prohibited marriage during Lent so Shrove Tuesday was the last marrying day for 40 days – maybe weekday weddings were all the rage back then.
No doubt in houses around the country today, the batter is being whisked and the debate over fat or thin rages. My preference has always been for small and fat rather than the Hungarian palacsinta, a thin crêpe-like pancake which cries out to be filled with some sort of something. There’s a 24-hour palacsinta place I’ve been known to visit occasionally after a night bath at Rudas, but the menu is way too extensive and the pressure of choice negates the relaxed feeling induced by the thermal waters.
Did you know that a 2009 movie called Shrove Tuesday: The legend of Pancake Marion won a host of awards: Best British Film at Horror UK’s 28 Hours Later film festival, Best Experimental Short at South Africa’s Horror Fest V, and Best Mythic Film at Vampire Film Festival, New Orleans. But I doubt you’d have much of an appetite left after watching it.
As to the history of pancakes, according to the Unofficial Happy History of Pancakes
600 BC – The first recorded mention of pancakes dates back to ancient Greece and comes from a poet who described warm pancakes in one of his writings. 1100 AD – Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) becomes a traditional way to use up dairy products before lent – the pancake breakfast is born.
And, as for preferences, according to an article in National Geographic
The ancient Greeks and Romans ate pancakes sweetened with honey; the Elizabethans ate them flavored with spices, rosewater, sherry, and apples.
Making them is as easy as 1, 2, 3:
- 100g plain flour
- 2 large eggs
- 300ml milk
Put the flour, eggs, milk, 1 tbsp oil and a pinch of salt into a bowl or large jug, then whisk to a smooth batter. Set a medium frying pan or crêpe pan over a medium heat and carefully wipe it with some oiled kitchen paper. Pour to desired size/thickness. Toss. Serve. Dress according to your preference. And whatever your preference, enjoy.