Posted in Family, Personal life

Every Day Can Be Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday)

A post about Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, British traditions and my ground-breaking philosophy of pancakes

Two lemons in a green bowl
When life gives you lemons, make pancakes!

Writing a couple of years ago about the nature of celebrations, after inadvertenty discovering that my second marriage had officially outlasted my first one (more on that story here), I had a Eureka moment about Pancake Day, which I’m going to share here today to mark this special Shrove Tuesday tradition.

For my international friends who may not know what Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday are, I should first explain those terms.

British Traditions

Shrove Tuesday is the last “normal” day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, the 40-day countdown to Easter during which many Christians choose to deny themselves something they enjoy, in memory of Christ’s sacrifice.

Chocolate is a popular option, because that’s a sacrifice you can revoke with a vengeance on Easter Sunday with the arrival of chocolate Easter eggs. But any bad habit or indulgence that you’re trying to relinquish is fair game – alcohol, cigarettes, overeating, etc. Coming less than three months after New Year, it’s a handy fresh start to those New Year Resolutions that you’ve probably broken by now. For the religious, sticking with it is a test of faith; for atheists, it’s more a test of character, especially if you’re like me and embrace any opportunity for a new beginning.

Orange-shaped lemon
The lemon that aspired to become an orange

One of the traditions on Shrove Tuesday was to use up the last of any indulgent food in the house to make pancakes, including fatty food – which is why Mardi Gras translates as “Fat Tuesday”. These days, few people in the UK will be unaware of the general will to make and devour pancakes today, even if they have no intention of giving anything up for Lent. Pancake Day is an end in itself. Every supermarket in the country will have special displays of pancake mix, lemons, and special pans for frying pancakes. (If you want to snap up a pancake pan for a bargain price, hit the supermarkets tomorrow, when they’ll all be selling them off to cheap to clear their shelves ready for Easter eggs and hot cross buns.)

Pancake Day has thus become an end in itself. We British know how to celebrate – no crazy drunken festivals for us of the kind that you find on continental Europe or South America. No Mardi Gras or Fascing or Carneval here. No, we settle for a nice quiet meal around the tea table, delicately squeezing lemons, quietly sprinkling sugar on our pancakes. Mind you, in some parts of the country, they take this a step further by holding public Pancake Races. These are simple running races made more challenging by each participant having to hold a frying pan in one hand, tossing a pancake over and over as he or she runs.

My Family’s Pancake Traditions

Waitrose own brand equivalent to Jif lemon juice
Cheap long-life lemon choose, posing as posh at Waitrose

This may seem strange to those of you who live in countries such as the Netherlands, where pancakes are standard daily fare, but when I was a child, my brother, sister and I would get very excited about the prospect of Pancake Day, and my mum would toil endlessly in the kitchen cooking them as fast as we could eat them. That was possibly the only day in the year when we’d have fresh lemons in the house – though more usually it was squeezy Jif lemons, juice preserved with God knows what in little plastic lemon-shaped bottles.

When my daughter was little, she loved pancakes, and as she was a fussy eater, I was quick to identify pancakes as a great opportunity to get protein and calcium inside her. Eggs, flour, milk – that’s all it takes to make a pancake.

One day, when she was about three, she requested a “pancake boat”. I had no idea what she meant, so using a pair of scissors I cut a pancake into a sailboat shape. Using the principle of the old joke about sculpting, I just snipped away anything that didn’t look like a boat. She was delighted.

A couple of years later, the pancake boats were still mooring regularly on our tea table, so you can imagine our delight when on a trip to Amsterdam, in which we stayed at the pleasingly named Hotel Botel (yes, it was a boat), we found ourselves looking across the water to a big red floating restaurant called the Pannenkoekenboot (Pancake Boat).

Photo of the Dutch Pancake Boat floating restaurant
Laura’s dream come true: Amsterdam’s Pancake Boat

Laura’s love of pancakes has grown up with her, and it’s an easy catering option to make pancakes for her friends when they come to tea. I’ve never yet met a child that dpesn’t like pancakes, whether with lemon and sugar, in the traditional English way, or with other toppings. Nutella and banana go down well in this household, while I personally favour ham and mushrooms diced into the batter. Pancakes are always perceived as a treat in this country, thanks to their ancient Shrove Tuesday heritage, even though they are so cheap to make and about the simplest and quickest dish to cook. It’s much easier to get a pancake right than even a boiled egg.

And so I come at last to my ground-breaking conclusion: though I wish everyone Bon Appetit for their Shrove Tuesday pancakes tonight, don’t let respect for tradition make you hold out for another year before your next indulgence. It’s not Christmas Day, you know.

Every day can be Pancake Day. All you have to do is mix the batter and buy some lemons.

Happy Pancake Day, however you choose to celebrate!

And for a final fling before Lent, if you subscribe to my new mailing list, I’ll send you a free short story on an indulgent theme: The Alchemy of Chocolate. 

Posted in Personal life, Travel

On A Mission To Post A Parcel

Village post office in Hawkesbury Upton, Gloucestershire
Hawkesbury Sweet Hawkesbury Post Office (photo: Wikipedia)

Ash Wednesday finds me on the high street of a town that’s new to me,  searching for a Post Office in which I can post an important parcel.

I’m up against the clock, because I’ve left my husband and daughter parked in a restricted zone where the parking ticket for our camper van, in which we’ve come away for half term, is about to run out. I march purposefully through the pedestrian precinct, scanning the shop fronts on either side of me for the familiar red oval logo.

After a few minutes of fruitless searching, I’ve passed endless charity shops and poundstores, two pawnbrokers, a halal butcher and a surprising number of greengrocers displaying neat, open baskets of exotic fruit and vegetables, the kind that characterise Asian and Caribbean cookery. I’ve given a wide berth to ‘Jackpots’, a tacky arcade of slot machines offering prizes of up to £500, according to big signs in the window. Just 90 minutes’ drive from Tetbury, we might as well be in a different country. No cosy tearooms, antique shops or bookstores are to be seen. There’ll be no rich pickings in this high street’s charity shops.

A Lost Soul

With a glance at my watch, I give up trying to find the Post Office on my own. I am not my husband: I will ask someone for directions. But spotting a helpful looking person is no easier.

Everyone I encounter is pale, downcast, jaded and sad. Their clothes are cheap, dark and drab, with one exception – a podgy fellow in his twenties sports a black hoodie to the front of which are stitched brightly coloured, giant metallic dollar signs. From the rest of his ensemble, I infer that these indicate his aspirations rather than his bank balance. If I accost any of these passers-by, they look as if they might burst into tears.

Then at last, like buses, two friendly faces crop up at once. There on a street corner are two smartly dressed young men, standing quietly looking about them as if at a loose end. They are quick to make eye contact with me and flash me a smile. Emboldened, I approach them.

“Excuse me, can you please point me in the direction of the nearest Post Office?” I plead.

Their smiles broaden.

“No problem,” says one, “it’s right there.

Modern British Post Office logo
It must be a sign!

He points to the other side of the street. The Post Office, based within a shabby convenience store, is exactly opposite where I am standing. I’ve been too preoccupied with people-watching to spot it. About to mumble an embarrassed apology for my stupidity, I cast my eyes downward. They alight on the young men’s lapels, where I spot badges identifying them as members of a church known for sending young missionaries out into foreign parts. I do not envy them their task in this dismal town. It’s my turn to flash a smile.

“Thank you so much!” I beam. “You’ve been very helpful.”

I think they will need all the encouragement they can get if they are to make it through their duties today. If I can’t summon up the resolve to ask the locals for directions, how hard must it be to talk to them about saving their souls?

Mission Accomplished

But as I join the queue in the Post Office, I castigate myself for my arrogance. Though armed only with smart suits and old-fashioned haircuts, these pleasant young men are bolstered by a much greater force than my smile: their unshakeable belief in their god. Though I don’t share their faith, I hugely admire what they are doing. I am suddenly moved to pay tribute, and so, my own mission accomplished, as I march back to the car where my husband will be impatiently drumming the steering wheel, I determine to show some resolution of my own: I decide to give up alcohol for Lent.

Mysterious ways…

Can’t see the wood for the trees… (image: Wikipedia)

This article was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, March 2013.

If you liked this article, you might like these others about post offices:

The Power of the Postage Stamp – about my daughter’s new hobby

Who Will Buy? – a memoir about the change in our village shops and services