Fat Tuesday diners flip over Sykesville church's flapjacks


Around St. Barnabas parish, Esther Mercer is widely regarded as the queen of pancakes. She rules on Shrove Tuesday, when the Sykesville church serves upward of 500 pancake lunches and suppers.

She organizes volunteers, oversees the kitchen and mingles with the guests. She is asked frequently, but never divulges the secret of the batter that is griddled into fluffy, dinner plate-size pancakes.

"I have used the same recipe here for 30 years, and made thousands and thousands of pancakes," she said yesterday.

Waitress Terry Willard said, "I keep trying to get the recipe. It is one of the reasons I am volunteering here."

Mercer will share only some of the process.

"Hand mix and no beating after you add the flour," she said. "Your batter should have a few lumps."

As near as any volunteer can recollect, the 156-year-old parish has served the traditional pre-Lenten fare for about 50 years. Many of the volunteers are in their 70s and remember helping their mothers with the meals.

"We helped our mothers and fell into their footsteps," said Eleanor Mercer, Esther's sister-in-law.

Pancakes evolved into the traditional fare for cooks who emptied their cupboards in anticipation of Lenten fasts. Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, a season of fasting and penance that precedes Easter for Christians.

As many as half of the 120 parishes in Maryland's Episcopal Diocese served pancakes yesterday, said Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, who planned to be at St. Barnabas for the late seating.

"It is an old tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages, when you ate no animal fat in Lent," Ihloff said. "The Germans made it doughnut day, and the English decided it should be pancakes."

Ihloff finds Mercer's pancakes irresistible and returns every year, even bypassing his own parish's pancakes. He prefers the combo meal: two blueberry pancakes with one plain.

"Nobody cooks and serves as well and as industriously as St. Barnabas," he said. "This is a great highly caloric meal just before the rigors of Lent."

Grace Shaughney agreed. "It's Fat Tuesday. We can all fatten up."

As the tables fill in the church hall, a line of diners has been known to wrap around the parish hall and along the Carroll County town's Main Street. The aroma of savory sausage, pancakes and fresh coffee wafts from the church kitchen all day.

"Main Street smells like pancakes, and it's making me hungry," said Gert Simmons of Eldersburg. She passed several churches that were hosting similar lunches, but was set on a meal at St. Barnabas. "I know the cooks, and they are so good."

The Rev. Earl Mullins, St. Barnabas' pastor, said the event is not a fundraiser - it's a community builder. At $6 a plate, the parish barely breaks even.

"We want our facility to be a tent for the community, a place where people can connect," he said.

Jennifer Kennedy, a Main Street merchant, took the day off to help serve lunch and planned to return with her family for dinner.

"It is an eating thing with homemade pancakes and syrup, blueberries and sausage, and I am all over it," Kennedy said. "It couldn't get any better than this."

Esther, Eleanor and Betty Mercer, a third sister-in-law, make it all happen. Esther gets together the provisions - at least 75 pounds of flour, 140 pounds of sausage, 18 dozen eggs, gallons of milk, and canola oil, which she recently substituted for shortening.

"Pancakes already have enough calories," she said.

Eleanor Mercer makes gallons of maple syrup - "I don't tap the trees, but I can make syrup," she said. And she provides about 35 pounds of fresh blueberries for those who like to "zest up their pancakes."

Betty Mercer offered homemade desserts from a tray laden with blackbottoms, cookies and heavily frosted cakes - no takers.

"Everybody is just too full," she said. "I might have them choose while they are still hungry and waiting for lunch."

The ladies insist on dinnerware, silverware, and glasses. They leave the dishwashing to men of the parish.

"I wash as fast as I can and recycle the dishes through here quickly," said Art Delagrange. "I don't mind until I get the greasy pots. This is the cleanest my hands ever get."

Several area workers took their lunch hour at the church.

"This is our Fat Tuesday tradition, but I think they should do this every Tuesday," said Jack Lusby, seated with a table of co-workers.

Fairhaven Retirement Community also served pancakes yesterday, but four residents ventured down the road to the church hall and were the first customers.

"These are better - no, these are the best," said Margaret Dietz.

Aromas finally lured Helen Neuhaus, church secretary, from her upstairs office.

"Pancakes are part of the St. Barnabas benefits package," she said.


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