Pancakes are like royalty: they have a long history in Britain, they radiate luxury, and, like so many other things, they’re taken too seriously by the Americans.
Historically, Shrove Tuesday – aka Pancake Day – is the last day on which one could stuff their face with eggs, milk and sugar before observing 40 days of Lent. It has roots in both pagan and Christian traditions.
Although its religious origins are now long-forgotten, the date is still celebrated around the world in a multitude of ways. Germans and Italians dress up. The Americans and the French celebrate with street parades. In Britain, where Shrove Tuesday is now largely exists only under its modern moniker, the focus is squarely (or roundly) on pancakes.
But why? We can’t really like pancakes that much, for if we did, surely we’d eat them far more often? Why have your co-workers spent today, literally the only time they have made pancakes in the past year, arguing over whether crepes or stacks are superior; nearly coming to blows over maple syrup vs lemon and sugar?
The British allegiance to Pancake Day begins with childhood indoctrination. In my school, our teachers took Pancake Day very seriously, and from a young age, ensured we knew how to toss a pancake. This year, Manchester United footballers posed with local primary school children during a pancake-making session. Primary school websites include pancake songs, debates about toppings and boasts about just how many pancakes their pupils consumed.
It could be that teachers are tired and children are easily distracted by something sweet sizzling in a pan. But there is some method to the madness. A study published in 2016, by the University of Texas found that children engaging in a group activity are more likely to be affiliated to the group, rather than just being around them.
Dr Nicole Wen, the lead author of the study, concluded that this was because “human psychology is geared to motivate individuals to engage in behaviors that increase inclusion within their social groups”. Making pancakes on Pancake Day is the ultimate expression of this. It is an arbitrary day of festivities that we can all take part in.
Though it is arbitrary, beyond the actual nicely-fried batter, Pancake Day works because we all take it seriously. It occupies the same space as Kardashians, or curling. They have little impact on our day-to-day lives, and logically there is no reason we should derive pleasure from them, and yet we invest emotionally in them.
Perhaps the ultimate example of taking the ridiculous seriously and revelling in it is royal weddings. A study of the coverage from the BBC and ITV during the 2011 royal wedding found that, after Will and Kate, the third protagonist of the days events was in fact the public.
Both channels would broadcast interviews with members of the public, which they could then use to describe the national mood.
That study concluded that “ordinary members of the public legitimised the event’s significance” and that these interviews “functioned to invite the viewer to participate, to integrate themselves with this ‘centre’ of festivity.”
Pancake Day is as much about us as it is about the pancakes. We care about Pancake Day because everybody else cares about Pancake Day, because we prefer eating to working, and because it gives us a sense of belonging.
There are also practical reasons for dressing up something fairly trivial in ritual and tradition. A study published in Psychological Science in 2013 found that rituals before eating makes food taste better. One experiment conducted asked half the participants to break a chocolate bar in half first before eating it, while the other group were instructed to eat it as normal. The researchers found that those who had first broke the chocolate bar in half reported it to be more delicious. This may explain why pancakes taste especially good today, or why turkey does on Christmas Day.
Similarly, while republicans may be left cold by enthusiasm for the marriage of two people among 60 million, those who have already bought their monarchist tickets will derive real pleasure from the pageantry of the show, without any of the stress involved in a real wedding.
Indeed, the modern royal wedding, like the modern Pancake Day, asks very little of the country. It is ridiculous, but, despite the efforts of republicans, largely uncontroversial. In contrast to soul-searching events like Valentine’s Day, there are no expectations to live up to, and no hopes to be dashed.
“Here’s How Prince George Is Celebrating Pancake Day,” gushed Elle in 2017. Two faintly ridiculous traditions collide – for those who need something to cheer up the dark days of February, it’s the perfect mix.