Pancake Day, formerly known as Shrove Tuesday, is the day before the Christian practice of Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent). In the Netherlands, even though two-thirds of the Dutch population have no registered religious faith, celebrating Pancake Day is apparently a beloved tradition (neither my husband or I was aware of it until this year). At least, that is the impression you get if you’re a disciple of Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a famous Dutch Renaissance artist, shared his interpretation of Pancake Day back in 1559 with his painting “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”. If you rest your eyes towards the center front left, right behind the Prince of Carnival (a jolly man wearing bright red trousers and a blue shirt riding a beer barrel) is a solitary woman hunched down making pancakes (or waffles?). The painting depicts the internal human struggle between revelry and sobriety, of life and death, winter and spring.
Serving pancakes the day before a sustained period of fasting and self-reflection intuitively makes sense. It’s soul food after all – a rich, decadent concoction of white flour, eggs, milk, and butter. It’s a fitting last hurrah before the Christian practice of forty days of penance, austerity, and abstinence (Sundays are spiritual “cheat days” in the modern tradition).
Pieter Breugel The Elder’s The Fight Between Carnival and Len
The Dutch, of course, have their version of pancakes – a regular diet staple known as pannenkoeken. Not as thick and fluffy as their American cousins and with a bit more substance than their French neighbors, pannenkoeken are just the right texture and consistency, acquiring that elusive Goldilocks-style satisfaction. They’re also much larger – approximately one traditional portion is the size of a dinner plate. Pannenkoeken are rarely eaten for breakfast but usually for dinner at home, or an extravagant lunch – anything that isn’t an open-faced sandwich is considered a luxury in the Low Countries.
Pannenkoeken can be eaten as is, or with savory and sweet combinations of cinnamon, apple, bacon, cheese, and raisins. Depending on which pannenkoekenhuis (a specialized pancake restaurant) you go to, chances are you’ll be surprised with lots of epicurean creativity. My pancake for lunch today was with smoked salmon, spinach, pine nuts and goat cheese. My sons had theirs with apple and cinnamon. And rather than drizzling pannenkoeken with a healthy dose of maple syrup, the Dutch have stroop – a more condensed sugary syrup.
As a cafeteria Catholic and a mom, I love celebrating this day and look forward to Lent. I appreciate setting a specific time each year to reflect on my life, reassess what is and isn’t important to me, and to be more aware of how I spend my time. I use it as a time to take an honest inventory of my life and how I can be a better mother, wife, and overall human being. It is a gentle reminder of my inevitable death – the ashes signed in the shape of a cross on my forehead the next day – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return“. Lent is basically the magical art of doing a spiritual cleanse en masse.
It is also customarily a time of fasting for the most devout adult Catholics (two small meals and one regular meal) and sacrificing a particular vice. For children, it usually means giving up chocolate, ice-cream, video games, watching tv or playing with their favorite toy.
A recent interpretation of this period is making it a time to be a better human being. An example is The 40acts challenge where you take on the challenge of doing one positive act a day starting from Ash Wednesday up to Easter Sunday. Hopefully, the forty-seven days are enough time to make spreading some random act of kindness a daily habit. I find it a refreshing take on Christianity in a world that needs kindness and love more than ever before.