Pancake day is coming, and every year, it fills me with dread, because for some reason, I am rubbish at making pancakes. I don’t know why. I am sure I do everything right, whisking up the mixture, even checking the handwritten instructions my mother gave to me, about twenty five years ago, when I was going to university and learning to cook on a budget. My mother always swore that a pancake could make a good meal, and I have friends who say the same, but somehow, I just can’t make them right. Pancakes are meant to be a sweet celebration, before a time of fasting and reflection, but for me, they are both a challenge and a treat. Having them makes me remember long car trips as a child, when we travelled to a whole variety of equestrian events most weekends, often to take part, sometimes to watch. As we traversed the Cotswolds, Midlands and Home Counties, getting home late often seemed inevitable. On those days we would stop at roadside services, not always far from home, though eating in these places seemed as exotic as going to the moon. Usually it was all three of us, but sometimes just me and my Dad. We would fold ourselves into plastic booths around brightly lit tables, and marvel at how everything was different. We had to have a sensible main course, but if pudding were allowed, I would always go for the pancakes, with the alluring ‘mapleen’ syrup. Years later, I l was disappointed when I learned that this was an artificial flavouring, rather than the wonderful syrupy sap of the tree that had woven it’s way into my imagination.
Pancake and Shrove Tuesday have a long history, and are enjoyed as traditions and holidays differently all over the world. When I was growing up, we made a great effort to follow the church calendar. We lived in a small village and the church was the centre of the community for everyone, led by a wrinkly and twinkly eye vicar, who understood kindness and altruism as the main underpinnings of his role. He was inspirational in his actions, really walking his talk, and he was warm and approachable – open hearted to everyone. Lent was a big thing, in our house and in the primary school I went to. I can remember being encouraged to give things up, to show how good I was being. I loved it. One year I abstained from chocolates and crisps for the whole of Lent, to save and give the money to a campaign to replace the church roof – there is a tile somewhere with my name on it. I was six, and I thought I was marvellous, though it was hard to see my classmates guzzling Penguins and Clubs and Smoky Bacon Walkers from their Snoopy and Care Bears lunch boxes.
The concepts of feast and fast are not as alien to our contemporary society as they might seem. Debates about body image and concepts of beauty have a long history too, as do issues around poverty and access to healthy foods. I am always interested to see how things shift over time, being regarded as signs and poverty, then luxury, such as oysters, quinoa and polenta. There is something special about marking the year in special shared foods, in feasts shared, and at other times eating with specific intentions, to be local, seasonal and hopefully sustainable. I have always worked hard not to use the language of diets and disordered eating around my children, but to be positive about enjoying things that are good for us and treats too, but find it hard to know where the balance lies. I struggle, and reward myself with caffeine and sugar far too much. I have friends who turn to alcohol more than they would like to, as a savle for stress and difficult feelings in our fast paced work driven world.
This year I am thinking about the ideas of repentance, and forgiveness, of abstinence and absolution. I have always struggled with the concept of sins, probably because of the language around the idea. I worked for a long time in a faith organisation, which invited regular questioning, and I struggled with that too, until a wise friend suggested I look at it as a consideration of the self and how to be in the world – and that was something I could understand and do. So, this year, for the first time, in a long time, I am using this time to think about myself. I hear and see many people talking about self love and kindness, and whilst I am good at offering kindness to others, I am my own harshest critic. Historically, the concept of punishment, for wrongdoing, and paying penance were common practise, but those things to me feel too harsh for these times.
I have decided to choose ways to be better to myself, small things I can work, such as the way I move through the world, and how I treat the vehicle I move in. I am not making any rash promises or decisions, because in my experiences, they always fail. I am however thinking about the paths I choose to tread, and how my children see those paths. The lean season, beginning in the muddiest of months, is a hard time to start being contemplative, when all my senses seek comfort and reward. I will try again to make pancakes, to see if I can get the balance right, but I need my husband to flip them, or the kitchen will end up wearing the mixture and everyone will go hungry. In an effort to rekindle childhood memories, I have bought syrup, Maple rather than the synthetic counterpart, and I hope it will taste as good as it did when eaten in a roadside cafe all those years ago. I know now though, that what I really loved about those pancake moments was not the food, but the closeness and connection, and now the two are inextricably woven together. Fast and feast, separation and reconnection are all things to be grateful for, and shared sustenances can be handed on to my children, who grow at a surprising pace, and this year may well learn to make their own pancakes.