Have you ever wondered where pancakes originally came from? They’re older than you might think! As we begin our Pancake Week celebrations, I thought it appropriate to dig into the historical past of the pancake so that we can better appreciate them.
Pancakes: thin little cakes fried in a pan and topped with butter and maple syrup, a favorite breakfast choice in the US, the inspiration behind an international restaurant chain, and even part of our idiomatic speech (“flat as a pancake”).
You’d think that with the amount of pancake adoration we exhibit that we might have some claim to the origins of the pancake. Not so!
Pancakes may possibly be one of the oldest internationally eaten cereal foods. In fact, the earliest written recipe for pancakes is found in the oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity. The book, De Re Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”) (often called Apicius), contains a recipe titled “Ova spongia ex lacte,” or “Pancakes with milk.” If you read the English translation of the recipe, you will easily recognize the method used to make our beloved pancakes.
Alan Davidson sums it up nicely: “The griddle method of cooking is older than oven baking, and pancakes are an ancient form. The first pancakes clearly distinguishable from plain griddle breads are sweet ones mentioned by Apicius; these were made from a batter of egg, mixed milk and water, and a little flour, fried and served with pepper and honey. An English culinary manuscript of about 1430 refers to pancakes in a way which implies that the term was already familiar, but it does not occur often in the early printed cookery books…Throughout Europe pancakes had a place among Easter foods, especially on Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), the last day before Lent. Customs varied from country to country…One peculiarly English institution is the pancake race. The oldest of these has been held at Olney in Buckinghamshire, in most years since 1445…” —Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 571)
So the next time you sit down to enjoy a stack of your favorite pancakes, you might pause for a moment to say thank you to the Romans. Or “gratias tibi ago,” as they would have said.