Today is Mardi Gras, yes—the beads, the cake, the booze, the breasts. We get it. I love a Dionysian spectacle as much as the next joe, but one can take only so many years of unhinged debauchery, face paint, and galettes des Rois before the charm wears thin, even when there’s nudity involved. We need a change of pace.
Enter Shrove Tuesday, i.e., National Pancake Day, i.e., today. Picture a Mardi Gras where men lust not for nipples, but for fluffy flapjacks. The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day has just taught me about the pancake bell, “A bell rung on Shrove Tuesday at or about eleven a.m., popularly associated with the making of pancakes.”
Imagine! A bell devoted entirely to pancakes, a bell whose mellifluous peals say to all within earshot, Abandon your post, hire a sitter, and get thee to the griddle—it is time to eat starch.
Shrove is the past tense of shrive, meaning “to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve.” On the Tuesday before Lent began, the same bell that called people to confession served as a stern reminder: use your eggs, milk, and butter now, because once the day is out, we must begin ritually fasting and you are totally fucked.
Thus, everyone began to run home and whip up hotcakes; some people, rumor has it, even tried to cook the pancakes as they ran home, tossing and jogging, jogging and tossing, perhaps ladling syrup on occasion. To this day, the British town of Olney holds a pancake race (“Participants must don an apron and hat or scarf to compete. They are also required to toss the pancake three times during the 415 yard race, serve it to the bell ringer, and receive a kiss from him”) and IHOP hosts a fundraiser, though it does not, to my knowledge, involve the tolling of a pancake bell.
The OED includes an early reference to the bell, from Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemakers Holiday, which dates to 1600: “Vpon euery Shroue tuesday, at the sound of the pancake bell: my fine dapper Assyrian lads, shall clap vp their shop windows, and away. This is the day, and this day they shall doot, they shall doot.”