Pancakes are a lesson firmly on my school calendar. Shrove Tuesday changes with the date for Easter but we know when it is coming as plastic, yellow, squeezable Jif lemons appear in the shops and the TV advert reminds us Don’t forget the pancakes on Jif Lemon Day.
On Shrove Tuesday my mother was my pancake servant and she’d stand by the gas stove and toss as many pancakes as I could eat. Up to ten crisp pancakes were fried, tossed, sprinkled with caster sugar, squeezed with fresh lemon juice – an expensive treat, and rolled or folded. No Jif lemon! That’s not real! I’d finish one while the next was turning golden in the pan. One year she told me of the nearby Olney Pancake race where local ladies ran through the streets tossing pancakes in their frying pans, and it seemed such fun but we never went. She was always working.
To make really good pancakes you need a frying pan that does not stick and She Who Ran Away left me cupboards full of crusty cake tins, but there’s a stack of ready proved, very much used frying pans in my store cupboard that are perfect for pancakes.
‘Shrove Tuesday is the last day for rich foods to be used up before Lent. Eggs and milk are rich foods for many people so that’s why we’re making pancakes.’
Silence. They’ve got bowls of beaten pancake batter waiting. Get on! It’s time for me to demonstrate my tossing skills.
‘Melt a knob of lard in the pan until it has a smoky blue haze, pour in a thin layer of batter and swirl around.’
Smirks! OK! It’s knobs again. Don’t ask the size of a knob.
The lard melts and smokes, the batter sizzles, and a thin pancake crispens, bubbling with little golden craters, ready for tossing.
‘Now learn about tossing. You need to practice and the first pancake often doesn’t toss easily.’
‘Jimmy’s a good tosser, miss! Get him to show you how he does it.’
Sniggers and nudges. Jimmy lifts his hand and bats his stool mate round the side of his head. This lesson is descending into chaos. Once again my cookery terms have got tangled up with east London vulgarity.
‘Look! Just throw your pancakes in the air so they flip upside down and land cooked side on top!’
It would be much easier to say toss.
‘Go back to your cookers and get flipping.’
The room busies with pancake tossing and there’s a spontaneous round of applause when one lands back in the pan after it has somersaulted through the air. Some boys toss high to try a double flip and I suspect the pancakes that drop on the floor are a deliberate tactic to enhance the game and increase the laughter. The girls are more reticent and flip their pancakes safely with a palette knife.
Baking trays pile up with cooked pancakes in the hot oven and it’s time to gather for eating. Quickly. No time to take aprons off or put out the seersucker tablecloth. Our pancakes must be eaten hot and now.
I show them how my mother served them, sprinkling on sugar, a squeeze of lemon and rolling up like a cigar. Only we can’t afford fresh lemons. We’ve got the plastic Jif ones from the corner shop. No pips or bother on Jif Lemon Day. I wonder if we will lose the plot on what food is real or not.
‘Eat the pancakes with your hands.’
The boys push in mouthfuls, rinse their plates and charge out to their next class.