A movable feast – a food geek’s history lesson

I find the historical connections between culinary traditions from around the global endlessly fascinating. Shrove Tuesday is one of the first traditions that, as I learned more about it, I could see the indelible mark of a nation’s personality as a thousand years of colonization wove threads that are almost invisible today. Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras are two sides of the same holiday coin but with very different interpretations. Funnily enough, we can blame the French for both a day designed to aid absolution and a day designed for absolute gluttony!

“Pancake Day” was first introduced to me when I moved to London in 2011. A seemingly random Tuesday in the new year, Brits eat flat pancakes with butter and sugar– as many as they can! As a minor Francophil, I immediately recognized the classic French crepe recipe! But why the crepe, Anglaise? No one that I asked knew the origins of pancake day or why they ate crepes but, eventually someone mentioned that it’s also“Shrove Tuesday”. As it turns out, shrove (or shrive) means to absolve or to be “shriven”. Shrove Tuesday in France is known by a slightly more well-known name: MARDI GRAS.

For millennia, possession of northern France bounced back and forth between the English and the French. To this day, you will find cider in the Brittany region of France and some of the best sparkling wine in the world grown in southern England! Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday”, is the last day in a celebration of excess ahead of Ash Wednesday which is the start of 40 days of Lent. Chronologically, the days that Jesus spent wandering the desert, known as Lent, resisting the temptations of Satan between his baptism and when he started ministry does not end with Easter. But about a thousand years ago, Christians aligned the 40 days leading up to Good Friday as a time to reflect, resist and abstain, just like desert Jesus. For Mardi Gras in France, they enjoy the same “pancakes” as the English whilst Germans, Dutch, and Spanish use up their eggs, butter and sugar in other rich recipes resulting in their own pastry named days like “Malasada Day”(Madeira, Spain). In general, the English love to de-Frenchify anything and/or name things with the most obvious of possible names and, thus, we can assume “Pancake Day” was born!

In other parts of the world, particularly those with ties to the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cultures, Mardi Gras is celebrated with a weeks-long festival which includes fancy costumes, masquerades and pageantry. This festival gets in name from the elimination of meat as well as sugar, eggs, etc. Stemming from the Latin origin of carne or “flesh”, the medieval name of carnelevamen (putting away of the flesh) eventually morphed into “Carnival”. While there are carnivals wherever there are Christians, the most famous carnivals in the world are in Portugese Brazil or, my personal favorite, New Orleans, Louisiana(NOLA), USA. The unashamed love child of Spanish, French, Caribbean and native American cultures all thrown together after months at sea. Bohemian in nature, hot-blooded and perpetually thirsty for more, you’ll NEED to absolve after weeks of the Mardi Gras carnival ala NOLA.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans holds the king cake as the celebration pastry of choice. Traditionally eaten in France on the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th, to celebrate the visit of the Magi (of “We three kings” carols fame), it was brought to Louisiana by the Basques in late 1800s. The Basque region, in Northern Spain, is another area of the world that was passed back and forth between to countries (Spain/France) for centuries. Are you starting to see a theme here? In NOLA, Mardi Gras carnival season starts with Epiphany(January 6th) and extends to Fat Tuesday so we can easily assume how the King Cake eventually became the centerpiece of celebration with its bright green, gold and purple sugar icing and tiny baby figurine baked into the cake to be found by a lucky “King”.

After learning all of this, I was still curious where the division of celebration styles occurred. Why Shrove Tuesday meant abstention in the north versus the gluttony of Mardi Gras in the south of Europe? After some research, I discovered we can thank the Protestant reformation of the 1500s for that! Martin Luther, John Calvin and their peers rebelled against the opulence of the Catholic church and the worshiping of Saints. Instead, they promoted that living a simple life was living a Godly life. Pope vs. Preacher. Italians & Spanish vs. the Germans & English. In the end, the Catholics continued their “opulent” celebrations while the Protestants, well, those crazy cats didn’t. I guess it’s all right there in the name, isn’t it?

SO!  While I will be enjoying simple pancakes with butter and sugar in London, my bohemian friends in the southern half, will be indulging in far, far more decadent and, dare I say, debaucherous goodies then their Medieval counterparts. Although I feel like they would have happily proclaimed:

“Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler!”

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