National Pancake Day: A Brief History of Pancakes

The sweet or savory flat cakes have long been a culinary staple

Defined simply as flat cakes prepared from starch-based batter, pancakes—or at least rudimentary versions of them—were one of humanity’s earliest, most important foodstuffs.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Are there two National Pancake Days?

A day so nice they made it twice—February 28 was the year’s first National Pancake Day. People love pancakes so much that there are two National Pancake Days each year. As discussed in an earlier post, IHOP restaurants celebrate their holiday devoted to pancakes. IHOP’s National Pancake Day 2023 took place on February 28.

September 26 is the year’s second National Pancake Day. That day was first called Lumberjack Day. The creators of the holiday changed the name to honor pancakes.

And we also have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. It is the day before Ash Wednesday, also referred to as Fat Tuesday. Lent marks a time to eat simpler food and give up things like sweet, rich, and dairy ingredients. The day before the season started was therefore the ideal time to make pancakes as a means to use up leftover eggs, milk, and sugar.

Ambrosia Bakery (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) during Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Early pancake history

In 2022, researchers excavating the Shanidar Cave site, 500 miles north of Baghdad in the Zagros Mountains, unearthed the charred remains of some of the world’s oldest cooked leftovers. As Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanical scientist at the University of Liverpool and the lead author of a paper on the discovery says in an email, “It looked like the seeds were soaked before they were cooked. You can tell if it’s soaked or cracked before it’s mashed into a patty. From this, we suggested the food underwent something like a flat preparation.” The 70,000-year-old culinary treat was, in other words, a pancake.

While previous research suggested cooking emerged during the Neolithic era (roughly 7000 BC to 1700 BC) when prehistoric people transitioned to larger, more structured communities and began to domesticate crops and animals, more recent findings indicate otherwise. Kabukcu cites evidence of “cooking with different plants (tubers, nuts, seeds) much earlier than the Neolithic.” Some 30,000 years ago, for instance, Stone Age people made flour out of cattails and ferns likely combining the powder with water and baking the mixture on a hot rock to create a flat cake.

Today, the pancake remains one of the easiest foods to cook. Simply take a starch, be it wheat, barley, spelt, or another flour, then add water, milk, perhaps an egg or two, and—if hoping to make a thick, fluffy pancake—a raising agent. Combine, then pour or scoop the mixture onto a hot surface, flipping the patty once bubbles appear to produce a perfectly golden-brown cake.

While the base pancake recipe is largely the same around the world, different countries have found ways to make the food their own. In the United States, pancakes come slathered with maple syrup and butter; in France, thin crepes are made from wheat flour or buckwheat without a raising agent like baking powder or soda.

Kolaches are popular in Central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other global varieties include:

  • Ethiopian injera (sourdough flatbread)
  • Korean kimchi buchimgae (savory pancakes)
  • Chinese jianbing (savory crisp-fried crêpes)
  • North Indian cheela (crispy, soft pancake)
  • Venezuelan cachapas (savory-sweet corn pancakes)
  • South Indian dosa (crispy, savory pancakes)
  • Dutch babies (baked in the oven, rather than being fried)
  • Moroccan msemen (flat, square-shaped Moroccan pancakes)

What links pancakes from different ingredients and different cultures is their flat shape which helps them cook through quickly. They’re relatively simple and their smallish size makes them easy to eat.

The first written records of pancakes come from the ancient Greeks and Romans. Around 500 BC, Athenian poet Cratinus described them as “hot and shedding morning dew.” Some 600 years later in the late second century BC, Greek physician Galen included a recipe in his On the Properties of Foodstuffs that’s similar to how Russian blinis or Canadian griddlecakes are prepared today. Galen noted that these sweet treats were often enjoyed with honey.

To the east, in what is now Xinjiang, a region in northwest China excavations at the Subeixi Cemeteries have uncovered millet pancakes dating to between 500 and 300 BC making them roughly contemporary to Cratinus.

These early examples might fall under the modern definition of pancake. But they weren’t referred to as such at the time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pancake, derived from the Middle English pancake or ponkake only came into use during the medieval era. One text, Thomas Austin’s Two 15th-Century Cookery Books advised readers to set a pan over the fire, pour in the batter, and let it spread to makyst a pancake.

Kolaches are popular in Central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A food of the people

With its limited ingredients and short preparation time, the pancake has historically been a working-class food. “One of the great points about leavened pancakes and all the tribe of griddle cakes,” wrote Elizabeth David in the 1977 compendium English Bread and Yeast Cookery, “was that they provided a means of using flours such as barley, buckwheat, oatmeal, which were not suitable for bread proper.” Pancakes have an essential composition that’s more liquid than flour with a runny batter replacing dough which requires kneading.

The pancake’s status as a food of the people stretches back centuries. In the 1750 cookbook Country Housewife’s Family Companion, author William Ellis praised pancakes as “one of the cheapest and more serviceable dishes of a farmer’s family in particular because all the ingredients of the common ones are of his produce are ready at hand.”

When Prussia besieged Paris for four months in 1870 and 1871, bread grew scarce, particularly for the lower classes. Many Parisians turned to crepes which had long been considered “lowly fare for ordinary people,” writes Ken Albala in Pancake: A Global History. By the end of the year, however, it was virtually impossible to find flour.

Miners, lumberjacks, cowboys, and urban workers are all associated with pancakes. In homes where meat and fish were too expensive to procure, pancakes served as culinary staples that could be eaten on the go or taken back to work.

While pancakes were especially popular with the working class, they weren’t limited to this audience. In February 1619, English noblewoman Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, Pembroke, and Montgomery wrote a diary entry detailing how she made “pancakes with my women in the great chamber.”

Almost 300 years later, during the late Victorian era, English citizens occasionally ate caviar pancakes as part of the savory course, a small salty or piquant dish served at the end of the meal after pudding (better known to Americans as dessert) but before fruit and nuts.

Potter Country Store, Schulenburg, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pancakes around the world

Pancakes are celebratory, a festive food considered by many to be a symbol of life perhaps because “the bread-pancake made of unleavened flour and water was the staff of life” (or a dietary staple) in numerous ancient civilizations, the New York Times wrote in 1990. Eaten in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and some parts of Somalia, injera (made of teff flour) is served at weddings, birthday parties, and family gatherings. Traditionally, injera is enjoyed communally with two or three people eating from the same plate. In North India, chilla, a pancake made with chickpea-based gram flour is commonly served at weddings.

Literary classics also reference pancakes’ role in revelry. In John Steinbeck’s seminal 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family eats pancakes topped with syrup and sugar after Al announces his engagement to Agnes Wainwright. Even Shakespeare knew that pancakes were for merrymaking: In Pericles, a fisherman says, “Come, thou shalt go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and puddings and flapjacks, and thou shalt be welcome.”

In much of the Western world, pancakes are eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent and its 40 days of austerity. The holiday’s name is derived from shrive, an archaic verb meaning to confess or give penance (the original purpose of Shrove Tuesday).

Also known as Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday’s association with the flat cakes probably came about pragmatically. Early Lenten rules banned dairy and meat so Christians had to use up their eggs and milk before fasting began.

During the Middle Ages, Shrove Tuesday took on a more raucous air with English peasants spending the day gorging themselves on sugary and buttery richness. In many towns, a shriving bell was rung to call villagers to confession. Pancake: A Global History notes that a local legend tells of a housewife who “was still busy cooking pancakes one morning when a particularly zealous vicar rang the bell rather early. Still in her apron, she took off, pan in hand, flipping as she went so as not to spoil the efforts of her labor.” To commemorate the woman’s dedication some English towns host pancake-flipping contests and races the oldest of which is still held annually in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

Food writer Felicity Cloake who spent many hours investigating the perfect pancake recipe for the Guardian, says, “The Shrove Tuesday variety of pancake, wafer thin and rich with the butter and eggs we’re supposed to be forsaking for the next 40 days, is now largely confined to Pancake Day itself.”

Pecans © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pancakes play a central role in Judaism, too, with Jewish people eating latkes to commemorate the Hannukah miracle. Today, latkes are often made of potatoes (either shredded or pureed) and fried in oil like a Ukrainian kartoflani platske. Potatoes arrived in Europe from the New World during the 16th century but were only widely farmed in Eastern Europe some 200 years later. Before potatoes became widely available, Jewish peoples ate latkes made of buckwheat flour or cheese, building on an earlier Italian Jewish tradition.

Part of the appeal of the pancake rests in its endless customizability. Add-ins run the gamut from blueberries to chocolate chips, lemon, sugar, candied ginger, ham, and tomatoes. In Indonesia, serabi kuah pancakes sport a bright green color thanks to their inclusion of coconut milk and pandan flavoring.

In the Netherlands, pannenkoeken are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner much like buchimgae in Korea. Farinata, a flat cake made with chickpea flour, is enjoyed as an appetizer in Liguria, Italy, and known in France as socca. According to legend, farinata was an accidental invention. Buckling under thrashing waves, the contents of a boat’s galley—including jars of pureed chickpeas—were tossed about during a storm around the year 1200. The chickpea mass congealed and cooked in the next day’s sun, yielding round, brown discs that were quickly eaten by the surviving sailors.

Every culture has its own version of the pancake—and with it a story.

Worth Pondering…

The laziest man I ever met put popcorn in his pancakes so they would turn over by themselves.

—W. C. Fields