You Pancake It With You
I've never really celebrated Mardi Gras. Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in New Orleans, or because I wasn't raised in the Catholic Church, or because I've never been able to picture myself doing a nearly naked samba through Rio. (Well, not yet, anyway. After I turn 50, though, all bets are off.)
Big fancy parades with costumed folks tossing bright shiny beads, lush purple and gold king cakes, pots of gumbo -- nope, not my style. After all, I wasn't giving up anything for Lent, so why have a big blowout sort of party? Didn't make sense to me.
For some reason, though, I found myself thinking about Mardi Gras this week and wondering what I could cook to celebrate. It's not that I'll be depriving myself of anything for the season, though my cooking will certainly remain as simple and as focused on preserved foods as it has all winter.
But for one night -- why not indulge a little?
So I looked around for Mardi Gras recipes, and nothing seemed to suit me (nor did I have most of the ingredients!). For some reason, I had the thought of pancakes stuck in my head, but I wasn't finding any references.
Then I thought about the alternate name for the day -- Shrove Tuesday -- and searched for that. Success!
It turns out that in Britain, Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day. The tradition goes way back to the days when people had one last feast before Lent and used up their milk, eggs, and butter in one serious pancake party. (Now that's my kind of celebration!)
Mind you, I suspect that the tradition may even pre-date the Christian calendar, as the dead of winter often found cows drying up and hens taking a pass on egg-laying, thanks to the cold weather (and probably their own lack of good food in the winter months). I won't swear that's true, but it makes sense to me.
In looking up more information on Shrovetide traditions in my cozy cookbook The Vegetarian Hearth by Darra Goldstein, I found this lovely synopsis:
True, we no longer believe that eating pancakes safeguards us from hunger in the year ahead; nor do we accept that in imitating the sun, pancakes symbolize our survival. And for that we can be grateful. But even if pancake eating is today no more than an indulgence, devoid of any higher meaning, we still clamor for them. We want to bid winter a lush, sweet farewell. As a communal holiday, Shrovetide once affirmed the necessary bonds that enabled families and villages to function harmoniously. So when we sit down to share pancakes with family and friends, we share in an age-old ritual. With each taste of pancake, we partake of community, enabling us to experience the warm spirit of winter, even if we no longer feel entirely free to eat to our heart's content. (pp 77-78)
Well, with so many good reasons for it, I don't have to be prodded a second time to make pancakes, even for dinner. That itself is a time-honored tradition in my family, and I had no problem going home and firing up the cast iron skillet.
So here's my Mardi Gras indulgence: whole wheat pancakes made from a mix (are you shocked?) from my local miller and cooked with shredded local sharp cheddar. (I loves me some cheese pancakes!) I also splurged at the store on some of those vegetarian "sausage" patties -- an increasingly rare indulgence on my part since they're not local and are highly processed.
Mmmm, mmmm. Rich buttery and cheesy pancakes, with the sharp savory cheese flavor offset by a hint of sweetness in the grains, and complemented by savory crisp patties on the side, followed by a big cup of creamy dark tea infused with cardamom. This dinner encompassed so many of the cozy flavors of winter and so many of the creature comforts we cling to on cold days. What bliss!
Okay, maybe you don't think that's much of an indulgence, but for me, it is. (I mean, there wasn't a single vegetable on the plate! Quick! Fetch your smelling salts!) But it's enough for me to mark the occasion and to relax a little bit before we head into the rest of winter and my own personal challenge to keep cleaning out the pantry.
I won't be giving up good food, though -- just appreciating a different kind.