Prolegomenon to a tentative and hypothetical solution to:
The Great PANCAKE Mystery
It will not be unknown to the distinguished assembly gathered here today for this, the one hundred and seventy-ninth Elmer Fudd Memorial Lecture, that the Mystery of the Pancake has for centuries proved a source of bafflement to Theologians 1, Church Historians 2 and Anthropologists 3 alike. This enigma has baffled some of the greatest minds in history, and a lot more of the feeblest.
1 People who study God. As God is by definition unknowable, these people will never come to the end of their task and have therefore discovered the secret of perpetual employment.
2 People who know how the Church used to be. Essentially lazy people, they dedicate much of the time to keeping the Church exactly as it was, thus ensuring that they never have to add to their knowledge.
3 People who study Humanity and its systems of organisation. Since the variety of this subject is both infinite and growing, they too have discovered an endless task.
But for the benefit of the first-year students, who, I observe, are already shuffling their feet and getting out the portable chess set, perhaps it would be wise if I were to, as it were, recapitulate. To begin, that is to say, at the beginning.
In the beginning, then, the early Church, like so many religious organisations before and since, had a genius for making a virtue out of necessity. There are still vestiges of this practice in the church today, as witness the noble self-sacrifice of many of our urban clergy, who voluntarily consent to undergo the hardship of living in large, centrally-heated four-bedroom houses in the best part of town, or the layman who, having a particular fondness for Evensong, bravely volunteers for sidesman’s duties at the anti-social hour of six on a Sunday afternoon.
Long before religion was codified, the European peasant organised his year according to a calendar dictated by simple need. The harvest came in at the end of summer, and there was plenty of food for a couple of months, until the onset of winter forced him to bring the cattle indoors and to impose a certain amount of rationing to conserve his stocks of grain. This goes on till midwinter when, the cattle having eaten over half the stocks of hay, it is necessary to kill and salt down the surplus males of the livestock (except for the pigs, which live on scraps). As there are lots of meat items that cannot be successfully preserved, midwinter was a time of feasting. For another couple of months, through the harshest of the winter, there would be plenty to eat; but by the end of February the salt meat was almost gone, and there was little but grain left in the store. The early Spring, therefore, was a hungry time once more, until there was enough grass to turn the cattle out onto, and it was at last time to kill the pigs and have another feast 4.
The Church, which had already worked out the value of fasting and self-denial, simply superimposed its discipline on the natural rhythm of things. This was not only good for the soul; it ensured that improvident peasants didn’t do stupid things like eating the seed corn or killing the breeding cows. In many cultures, incidentally, the seed corn was handed over to the Priest for safe-keeping 5, and to this day a Hindu is forbidden to harm a cow 6.
4 It used to be said that you could eat any part of a pig except the squeal. This explains why black puddings, chitterlings, brawn, tripe and trotters are notoriously taciturn.
5 This is thought to be the origin of tithing. Others say tithing grew out of sheer greed, but for once we’ll give the clergy the benefit of the doubt.
6 The Book of Leviticus is particularly rich in this sort of edict. For example, Moses knew that the journey to the Promised Land would take years, so the Children of Israel needed to take with them animals which ate grass and were easily herded. So, no pigs. Meat on the journey would be preserved by drying in the sun, and for that purpose needed to be thoroughly bled first, hence kosher butchering practices, and so on.
What the Church missed, however, was the natural desire of humans confronted with a fast to indulge in a good binge first. It is this spirit which has turned Shrove Tuesday into Carnival, Mardi Gras, Pancake Day. On this day, not officially a feast of the church, lissom latin lovelies dance in the streets of Rio, beautiful blondes throw flowers at passers-by in Nice, and the Rector races the Mayor through the streets of, for example, Grimsby7. And it is here, as you will already have understood, that the Mystery of the Pancake rears its head.
Consider, ladies and gentlemen. The pancake is not a luxury item. When my mother was a girl, her father was a foreman in a lead mine whose owner was considered a good employer because, when a miner was killed in the early morning, he gave the widow her man’s wages for the whole shift. Once, when Grandad was off sick for a fortnight, the family lived through the second week on a diet consisting entirely of pancakes, made on this occasion from flour and water.
Our ancestors learned to pretty a pancake up by using milk or eggs 8, but it remains a basic, peasant food, one of that class made up of cereal and water which includes pasta, couscous, polenta, mealies, chapattis, rice noodles, unleavened bread and corn-pone. It is the basic staple of a peasant diet.
7 There are those who are inclined to think that Grimsby, in this matter, has drawn the short straw. Negotiations on the transfer market with Nice and Rio have so far proved fruitless.
8 But not sugar, which hadn’t been invented yet. The ancients had to make do with honey. Milk and honey was the bait used to get Israel out of Egypt. Honey has its points, but it’s not easy to sprinkle it on your corn flakes, so it’s just as well those hadn’t been invented yet either.
So what has a pancake to do with feasting? There, in a nutshell, is the problem. What is it about pancakes that constitutes a feast? Until recently, I had no more idea than you; but then came the blinding revelation. I took to thinking about the French name for this feast: Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. And that’s the answer; fat. Lard, suet, butter, dripping. The animals were killed at Christmas, all the salt meat has gone, and Fat Tuesday is the day when you get to eat up the dripping, and a very good way to do that is to fry pancakes in it.
Before central heating, before decent fireplaces, before the invention of refined sugar or chocolate or ice cream, what everybody dreamed about in the long, cold winter was fat. Mountains of blubber, vats of lard. God promised Abraham the fat of the land, and the Old Testament is full of this longing for grease dribbling down the chin. Fat puts a layer of insulation round your middle, it comforts and protects; there were fataholics in those days.
So there, my friends, is the answer humanity has been waiting for. If you do not find it satisfying, you have never gone off to school on a frosty morning with a good slab of bread and dripping in your satchel to line your stomach against the rigours of the afternoon. A noble meal, bread and dripping, and to give it up for Lent constitutes in my opinion a truly heroic sacrifice.