They say it started more than 500 years ago, when on Shrove Tuesday (the day before the start of Lent), a housewife in England was cooking at her stove, heard the bell for church, and dashed from her house to the church still wearing her apron and carrying her skillet.
Today it is an annual international women’s race, in which the participants wear a housedress, headscarf and apron, and must carry a skillet with a pancake in it, and flip the pancake.
The event takes place in Olney, England and Liberal, Kansas USA. Each town holds a race, and the fastest finish time wins the international contest.
(Picture from Olney’s website)
A multi-day festival has grown up around the event. Each town maintains a Pancake Day website; and each maintains a Facebook page, which is great for enthusiasts like me who want real-time updates on race day.
- Liberal, Kansas USA
- Olney, England
This totally awesome Olney poster was designed by one of its middle school students:
(Click the poster to go to the Olney page for more info on the poster.)
How the International Pancake Day Race came about:
Each of the two cities’ websites gives a brief history of the Pancake Day Race. Since each site provides a fact or two that the other one doesn’t, I’ve included both. But hey, the best thing to do is visit both websites for more history and photos of past events.
From the Liberal, KS site:
“In Olney, England, the Pancake Race tradition dates back more than 500 years to 1445. A woman engrossed in using up cooking fats (forbidden during Lent) was making pancakes. Hearing the church bells ring calling everyone to the shriving service, she grabbed her head scarf (required in church) and ran to the church, skillet and pancake in hand and still apron-clad. In following years, neighbors got into the act and it became a race to see who could reach the church first and collect a “Kiss of Peace” from the verger (bell-ringer.)
“HOW DID PANCAKE DAY GET STARTED IN THE UNITED STATES?
“It all started in 1950 from a magazine picture of the Olney women racing each other to the church. Liberal Jaycee President R.J. Leete contacted the Rev. Ronald Collins, Vicar of St. Peter and St. Paul’s church in Olney, challenging their women to race against women of Liberal. Like in Olney, the traditional prize of the race is the “Kiss of Peace” from the verger (bellringer).”
From the Olney, UK site:
“No one is quite certain how the world famous Pancake Race at Olney originated. One story tells of a harassed housewife, hearing the shriving bell, dashing to the Church still clutching her frying pan containing a pancake. Another tells that the gift of pancakes may have been a bribe to the Ringer, or Sexton that he might ring the bell sooner; for ringing the bell signalled the beginning of the day’s holiday and enjoyment, no less than to summon the people to the service at which they would be shriven of their sins before the long Lenten feast.
“Tradition declares that the race was first run in the year 1445, pancakes at the time being a popular dish, receiving royal favour. It was run on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, and the whole day was given over to a festival of celebration, pranks and pastimes. It is not known where the original start line was but the finish line was at the Church door.
“The race continued through the centuries, and whilst many other local customs died, and the race itself may have lapsed many times, such lapses never caused the race to be entirely forgotten by the womenfolk of Olney. It is known to have taken place during the troublesome times of The War of the Roses (1445 to 1487).
“THE CUSTOM REVIVED
“After a lapse during the Second World War, it was revived again in 1948 by the Vicar of Olney the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins. In clearing out a cupboard he came across some old photographs, which had obviously been taken in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties of women running with frying pans. Filled with enthusiasm to revive the ancient custom, he called for volunteers, and in response thirteen runners appeared on Shrove Tuesday that year. The race immediately caught the popular imagination and people of Olney set out to enjoy this simple and colourful link with their rich past, a day of festivities.
“THE LINK WITH LIBERAL
“In 1950 the race became an International event. A challenge was received from the town of Liberal in Kansas, USA, where they had, after seeing the press photographs of the race at Olney, conceived the idea of setting up a similar custom. Olney readily accepted the challenge and, in a spirit of international goodwill and friendship, the two towns now compete annually and prizes are exchanged. The race is run on a timed basis.”
- At 11:55 am Olney time (5:55am Central US time), the Olney Race begins.
- At 11:55 am Liberal time (5:55pm Olney UK time), the Liberal race begins.
The weather forecast for this year’s race:
- Olney: Partly cloudy and 50°F with a SW wind of 17 mph, causing a feels-like temp of 45°F.
- Liberal: Sunny and 29°F with a N wind of 8 mph, causing a feels-like temp of 22°F
Don’t be fooled by the dresses, aprons and skillets; these races are legit athletic contests. So, what is the actual race like? Here is a recent video from each side of the pond:
The Olney, UK race (2012)
The Liberal, KS USA race (2014)
Attending these two Pancake Day races is a bucket list item for me. It’s only a 3.5 hour drive for me to Liberal, KS, but Tuesdays pose a problem. Once again this year, work has intervened to keep me from going. Next year, Pancake Day is on Tuesday, February 25. I shall try again.
I love to eat pancakes, so pancakes must be included in this story:
American pancakes are typically thicker than English pancakes. I love both.
An American style pancakes recipe: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/21014/good-old-fashioned-pancakes/
(photo from allrecipes.com)
An English style pancakes recipe: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/2907669/easy-pancakes
(photo from Epicurious.com)
I love pancakes so much that on my first ever trip to England (in 2010), I took a picture of my first-ever English pancake, and the lovely, skilled vendor cook who made it for me.