Hallowed be the pancakes before Lent

JACQUES KELLY

February 24, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when Christians are reminded to "Remember man that thou are dust and unto dust thou shall return."

The beginning of the season of Lent's 40 days is traditionally a day of penance and introspection. But yesterday, some Baltimoreans, as in other parts of the world, had a last gustatory fling before the long, late winter days when believers are TC supposed to deny themselves pleasures of the table.

Consider the happy pancake eat ers who turned up for the Shrove Tuesday feast at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1900 St. Paul St.

Shrove Tuesday takes its name from the archaic verb, shrive, "to hear the confession of, then after absolution, do penance."

In pre-Reformation England, a bell would summon the sinful to line up to confess their transgressions to the priest. Times have changed, but the wintry chime is still called the "Pancake Bell."

By 11:45 a.m. yesterday, people were lining up for the traditional plateful of flannel cakes, served with sausage, apple butter, apple sauce and cottage cheese (the German schmierkase). It is a Baltimore tradition born from this city's proximity to southern Pennsylvania's German settlers.

"We had apple butter and applesauce at home so I thought we should have it here," said the Rev. Dale W. Dusman, St. Mark's pastor. He spent his youth in Hanover, Pa., where German traditions ruled.

William Taylor, an engineer for Maryland National Bank, took the day off to work the griddle. His efforts consumed 40 pounds of sausage, 30 pounds of pancake flour, 20 pounds of cottage cheese and 12 pounds of apple butter. He was joined by his wife, Janet, and together they served more than 100 people.

The Taylors live in the 1100 block of Haubert St. in Locust Point, a neighborhood renowned for its excellent church suppers. "I'd hate to run out of food for one of these. I'd rather have it left over than turn people away," Mr. Taylor said.

For as long as Christians have resolved to fast and punish their bodies during Lent, there has been discussion on just how to accomplish this. At one point, there was to be but one meal a day, without meat or wine.

Other saintly church writers advised no meat and also a period of no eggs, cheese or fish. But exemptions to the rules were granted, especially to the "lacticinia" (milks and cheeses) if a penitent made a contribution to a worthy cause.

In Germany, these donations were known as the "Butterbriefe" and several churches were said to have been built with these contributions. One of the steeples of the French cathedral at Rouen was known as the Butter Tower.

"This general prohibition of eggs and milk during Lent is perpetuated in the popular custom of blessing or making gifts of eggs at Easter, and in the English usage of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday," wrote Herbert Thurston in the 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia.

A Germanic (and Polish) variation on the pancake is the "fastnacht," a kind of doughnut made just before Lent. Fastnacht (fast night) also means Lent. For weeks now, there have been signs up at the York (Pa.) Farmers Market recommending that shoppers place their orders for this seasonal baked good.

"The parents would send the fastnacht into the schools for a party on the Tuesday before Lent began," recalls Pastor Bruce D. Wickkiser, of St. Luke's United Church of Christ, Carey and Fayette streets.

He grew up in Pennsylvania's Northampton County near Bethlehem and Allentown, where many old German-Swiss Evangelical and Reformed families reside.

"But the big thing was to lock out the teacher that day. We'd get to the school real early and lock all the doors, tie them shut or whatever," says Mr. Wickkiser.

"One year, she played a trick on us. When we got in, she jumped out from behind the piano. She'd spent the night in the school and was waiting for us."

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