Thunder on Shrove Tuesday foretells prosperity in the land.
Today, we are called on to confess our sins and be shriven (or shrove), in other words, given absolution. Tomorrow we begin our penitential season of Lent.
This is the last day of Carnival, the end of the season of good living, and so today is celebrated with all sorts of merry-making, games, and good food. Pancakes, fritters, and fried cakes were the traditional fare of Shrove Tuesday in many countries, possibly as a way to use up the very last of the lard before the fasting and abstinence of Lent began.
The customs surrounding the making and eating of pancakes today have been around for a few centuries now. Flipping the pancake was a source of entertainment; the one who could successfully flip his pancake and catch it again in the skillet received the applause of all, while he whose pancake dropped to the ground was greeted with laughter. [Don't feel so smug. Have you tried flipping a pancake lately? Takes a fair amount of skill.] In some schools, the cook would enter the classroom with great ceremony, and with equal decorum flip a pancake into the crowd of waiting pupils, who then tried to capture it whole (the winner received a present of money). The remnants of these games are found in the well-known Pancake Races, in which women race down a length of road, flipping a pancake a certain number of times in a skillet.
It was believed that making and eating pancakes ensured prosperity for the coming year, and that if you buried a piece of the pancake, you would have luck for the next 12 months.
Of course, whenever there is jollity and celebration around, there will also be those who roll their eyes and bemoan how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Consider this diatribe, published in 1630, from the (uneducated and self-proclaimed) Water Poet, John Taylor:
"Always before Lent there comes waddling a fat, grosse groome, called Shrove Tuesday, one whose manners show he is better fed than taught, and indeed he is the only monster for feeding amongst all the dayes of the yeere, for he devoures more flesh in fourteene houres than this old kingdom doth (or at least should doe) in sixe weekes after. Such boyling and broyling, such roasting and toasting, such stewing and brewing, such baking, frying, mincing, cutting, carving, devouring, and gorbellied gurmondizing, that a man would thinke people did take in two months' provision at once.
Moreover it is a goodly sight to see how the cookes in great men's kitchins doe frye in their master's suet, that if ever a cooke be worth the eating, it is when Shrove Tuesday is in towne, for he is so stued and larded, basted, and almost over-roasted, that a man may eate every bit of him and never take a surfet. In a word, they are that day extreme cholerike, and too hot for any man to meddle with, being monarchs of the marrow-bones, marquesses of the mutton, lords high regents of the spit and kettle, barons of the gridiron, and sole commanders of the frying-pan.
And all this hurly-burly is for no other purpose than to stop the mouth of the land-wheale, Shrove-Tuesday, at whose entrance in the morning all the whole kingdome is in quiet, but by the time the clocke strikes eleven— which, by the help of a knavish sexton, is commonly before nine, —then there is a bell rung called the Pancake-Bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted and forgetful either of manners or humanitie."
[I think the pancake flippers had more enjoyment in life than did the Water Poet]
In some parts of Belgium, it was traditional to eat cabbage today, believing that it would prevent flies and caterpillars from destroying the year's crop of cabbages.
In Germany, this was known as Fastnacht, and the traditional fare included FASTNACHTKUCHEN (aka Fastnachts or Raised Doughnuts), for which I here give a recipe:
These are yeast doughnuts and must have time to rise twice before they are formed and fried in hot fat. Plan accordingly. Also, this recipe makes about 3 dozen.
Sift 2-2/3 cups of flour and set aside. Sift another 2 cups of flour in another bowl and set aside.
Scald 1-1/4 cups of milk. Stir in 1/4 cup of shortening and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cool mixture until it is lukewarm, then add either 1 small yeast cake or 1 package of active dry yeast, and stir.
Gradually add the flour to the mixture, beating it thoroughly with every addition. Put the bowl in a warm place, cover, and allow to stand until the batter is full of bubbles.
In another bowl, mix 3/4 cup of sugar with 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg and 3 lightly beaten eggs. Stir this into the batter, and add the remaining 2 cups of sifted flour.
Knead well in the bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for about an hour. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured board and roll out to about 3/4-inch thick. Cut out with a biscuit cutter (or a glass with a 2 to 3-inch diameter), and cut a small slit in the center of each. Cover lightly with a cloth and let rise until the tops are springy when touched (about an hour).
Heat fat or oil to 375° F. Drop doughnuts into hot fat and fry until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with powdered sugar, and [voice of experience here] let them cool down to at least warm before you eat them. Your mouth will thank you.
So, go to confession today and be shriven, then come home to feast on pancakes and fastnachts. Tomorrow, Lent begins.