Flip side

Food - Bee Wilson on the magic of pancakes

Pancake Day is upon us. Odd, really, that we still bother to make, flip and eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, now that the rest of our calendar is so divested of ritual. Most of us (forgive me if I speak just for myself) no longer celebrate Egg Saturday or Peasen Sunday. So why Pancake Tuesday? There can't be much in it for the supermarkets, at least not compared with all the expensive, red-papered frippery of Valentine's Day. Although they are meant to symbolise prosperity and abundance, flour, eggs and milk are now dirt cheap. Squeezy lemons don't cost much either, real lemons even less. I suspect our attachment to Shrove Tuesday is more emotional than commercial. Pancake Day is a vestige of magic in our unmagical existence.

All over premodern Europe, Mardi Gras was one of the most important feast days of the year. Carnival cakes took different forms in different countries: blinis in Russia, buckwheat crepes in Provence, doughnuts in Germany, waffles in Holland. The logical reason for making such dishes was to use up all the eggs, milk and butter in the house before the onset of Lent. But logic isn't everything. Picture the merry sight of an English pancake race, housewives running through a village, pans aloft and batter sticking to their rosy faces, frantic that their honour should not be compromised by failing to flip three times. Such rituals develop their own peculiar logic, which has little to do with reason, still less religion.

Many superstitions are linked to carnival pancakes. In much of Europe, pancakes were eaten at Mardi Gras in contradistinction to bread. As bread was the "staff of life", the support of everyday living, to eat it on a feast day might be very bad luck. The historian Stephen Wilson observes: "In Sicily, care was taken never to bake on a Sunday or an important festival, lest the displeasure of God or the saints be incurred." Eating pancakes was therefore a way of protecting yourself from harm. Some also believed that eating a particular dish on festival days would "ensure good supplies of food in the future". By dining on rich, buttery pancakes on this important day, people perhaps hoped they could guarantee that more butter would come their way in the next year. By the same token, Wilson shows, certain festivals were seen as providential days for baking. In Britain, it was believed until quite recently that cakes and buns baked on Good Friday would never go mouldy, and hence "they were preserved and used as remedies for illnesses in man and beasts".

Wilson's fascinating new book, The Magical Universe, is rich in such detail. Among a great deal else, he tells of honeycakes eaten by midwives to placate the Furies and the Polish belief that it was a sin to brush breadcrumbs on to the floor. Wilson also chronicles the strange practice of "sin-eating" in Hereford. A poor person would be paid a few pence to eat a loaf of bread and drink beer from a special bowl over a dead person. Relatives of the dead thought that in this act of eating, the pauper took upon himself "all the sins of the defunct". It is hard to imagine a practice more alien to the mentality of our age. But who knows, perhaps future historians will one day consider our continuing affection for Pancake Day to be just as supernatural and strange.

The Magical Universe by Stephen Wilson is published by Hambledon and London (£25, or the special price of £19.50 if ordered direct from www.hambledon.co.uk)

Buckwheat pancakes

To make 8, you need 2 tbsp melted, unsalted butter, 3/4 cup buckwheat flour, 1/3 cup plain flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 1/2 cups milk, 3 large eggs. Mix the batter well and chill for half an hour. Then make the pancakes in the usual way and eat with any of the things you would choose from a creperie - for example, butter and black pepper, Gruyere cheese, ham, eggs, spinach, mushrooms and cream. For pudding, have some sweet pancakes with sugar and lemon.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more