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By Eric Shackle

The 53rd annual International Pancake Day Race will be contested on February 12, when a team of pancake-tossers from the English village of Olney (pop. 6000), in Buckinghamshire, will compete against another from the U.S. town of Liberal (pop. 18,000) in Kansas. Women aged 18 and over will run a 415-yard course, each holding a frying pan with a pancake in it.

They have to flip their pancakes at least three times during the race. In Olney, the race is run from the Market Place to the Church. Competitors have to wear the traditional costume of a housewife, including a skirt, apron and head-covering. The winner receives a kiss from the Pancake Bell Ringer or verger, and a prayer book from the vicar.

Pancake Day is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of  Lent. It's sometimes called "Fat Tuesday." In  England, church bells were traditionally rung to remind parishioners to go to confession. Housewives used to drop whatever they were doing and hurry to the church at the tolling of the bell, to be "shriven" for their sins.

In 1445, the story goes, an Olney housewife hadn't quite finished making pancakes when the church bell rang. She hurried to the "shriving" carrying her griddle and pancakes with her. Villagers thought it so hilarious that they developed it into an annual event, which has been observed ever since.

"In Liberal, Kansas, USA, we heard of this 500 year race... when a World War II American soldier from Liberal met a soldier from Olney," says a Kansas website. "The event was brought to Liberal, and in 1950 the international challenge was accepted by Reverend Ronald Collins, Vicar of Olney.

"In the running of the International Pancake Day Race, times of the winners in both Olney and Liberal are compared by trans-Atlantic telephone, and an international winner is declared.

"Over the years a three-day celebration has grown up around the event in Liberal. A concert, amateur talent show, pancake eating contest, parade, community pancake breakfast, kids' races...  and other special events provide for a full schedule during the celebration."

Last year Juliet Minter, a 28-year-old school teacher, won the Olney race with a time of 67 seconds. A few hours later, in Liberal, physical therapist Lisa Spillman, 24, won the main event for the third year in a row, setting a world-record time of 58.1 seconds, despite freezing rain, sleet and snow. Sadly, a three-win limit rule prevents her from competing this year.

Liberal now leads Olney 27-24 since the event began in 1950.

Winner of the pancake eating contest, Michael Maxwell, of Liberal, scoffed nine and three-quarter pancakes.

The official recipe, for 1000 contestants and spectators, calls for 280lb of pancake mix and 126 eggs. You can see the details HERE.



Traditional medieval ball games are played in other parts of England on Pancake Day. Cornish webmaster/historian Phil Ellery says "Here at St. Columb Major we play with a silver ball up and down the streets of the town. It's like a rough, unorganised game of Australian Rules football

"The silver ball was once part of the tradition of may Cornish villages. Sadly, only two, St. Ives and St. Columb, continue the practise. The hurling ball, the size of an orange, and made from applewood coated with silver, goes flying through the streets of St. Columb on Shrove Tuesday and the Saturday of the following week.

"The struggle is a physical battle between Town and Country. Shopkeepers barricade their windows and doors for the start of the scrum at 4.30 p.m. The ball is thrown to the crowd from the market square. The objective is to carry it into either the town or country goals, set some two miles apart. If that can't be done, the ball may be carried over the parish boundary."

You can see photos of last year's encounter by clicking on St. Columb Major and a great pub sign HERE.

Copyright 2002   Eric Shackle   Story first posted February 2002

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