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The ins and outs of pancake day

  • Published
  • By Natalie Benge
  • 48 Fighter Wing Community Relations Advisor
Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday, is the traditional feast day before the start of Lent. Tuesday, pancake races will take place up and down the country to commemorate the day.


The origins of pancake racing can be traced back to the Buckinghamshire village of Olney in medieval times, starting in 1445. Legend has it one of the local women, so engrossed in cooking her Shrove Tuesday pancakes, found herself late for church. After hearing the church bell ring for the start of the shriving service, she took flight with her frying pan and pancake and ran all the way to church.


Today, a 415 yard race is run from the market place to a point midway down Church Lane. Warning bells ring from the church steeple and the churchwarden starts the race. The churchwarden uses a large bronze pancake bell, which is normally on display at the museum.

Competitors start their run down the street while tossing their pancakes in a pan. The winner of the race receives a traditional kiss from the verger or bell ringer on the church steps. The vicar gives the winning lady the "kiss of peace," namely the blessing "the peace of the Lord be always with you."

After the race, the runners, officials, townsfolk and visitors proceed to the church for the great Shriving Service, at which many of the famous Olney Hymns are sang. John Newton, the reformed exslave trader who wrote "Amazing Graze," and William Cowper, the poet that wrote "God moves in a mysterious way," both lived in Olney.

The winner and the race participants then place their frying pans around the font and sit in special seating for the service.


There are strict rules for entry to the race. Those who are eligible to take part must be women who are at least 18 years old and have lived in Olney for at least three months prior to the event or, if living away, have their permanent home in the town. Competitors must wear the traditional costume of a housewife, which includes a skirt, apron and head covering. They must, of course, also carry a frying pan containing a pancake.

International connections

It was in 1950 the race became an international event when a challenge was received from the town of Liberal, Kansas. This challenge came as a result of people in Liberal seeing press coverage of the events in Olney. The residents of Olney accepted the challenge and in the spirit of goodwill and friendship, the two towns compete annually. The race is run on a timed basis and the winner is declared after times are compared via a phone call from Liberal to Olney. So far the score stands at Olney 24, Liberal 26.

How to make a British Pancake

The ingredients for pancakes include eggs, symbolic of creation, flour, for the staff of life, salt, for wholesomeness, and milk, for purity. Eating pancakes over here will be a different experience for you than in the U.S. You are unlikely to see pancakes on a breakfast menu in the U.K. We tend not to use mixes for our pancakes as it is said the best pancakes are made with guesswork when it comes to mixing the ingredients together, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, until it looks about right. Our pancakes are cooked at a very hot temperature with a little fat in a large frying pan on the top of the stove.

The secret of good pancakes is to get the fat at the right temperature before adding the mixture. It needs to be almost smoking and you need to ensure the mixture covers the base of the whole pan. The pancakes should cook quite quickly so make sure you watch them the whole time, as they should take no more than one minute on each side.

Tossing your pancake

Part of the fun in cooking your pancakes is the tossing. To toss a pancake successfully will take a combination of the perfect pancake and good technique. Don't worry if your first few attempts end up on the floor or ceiling. It happens to us all, practise makes perfect.

Pancake tossing has become a serious business now with the world record for tossing standing at 416 times in two minutes. The world's largest pancake was made in Rochdale in the U.K. in 1994. It measured 15 metres in diameter, weighed three tonnes and contained in excess of two million calories.

Pancake Recipe
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup of milk
2 teaspoons oil

1. Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together.
2. Beat the egg with the milk and oil in a medium sized bowl until blended. Add the flour mixture and beat together until it forms a smooth mixture, no lumps.
3. Heat a frying pan with a little oil until it just starts to smoke.
4. Ladle approximately 1/4 of the batter mix into the pan and when bubbles start to appear on the top of the mixture toss the pancake over to cook the other side.
5. Pancakes are so versatile you can serve them with almost anything. Traditionally English pancakes are served with sugar and lemon juice.

For more information on living in Britain call Natalie Benge, Community Relations Adviser, at 266-3145, or email