Fat Tuesday pancake race: People flip out to show off their skill-ets

Pancake race Competitors in the 2018 International Pancake Race from Liberal, Kansas, pose afterwards. Courtesy photo.

Fat Tuesday celebrations have included parades, carnivals, and parties. But have you ever heard of a pancake race?  

Olney, England, and Liberal, Kansas, will compete against each other March 5 in the International Pancake Race, a 415-yard competition involving pancakes, skillets, and some serious flipping skills.

This is the 70th race since the friendly feud began in 1950. Last year, Liberal beat Olney with the victory of Gaby Covarrubias, a local parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.

"It was an awesome experience. My first time running and winning was not what I expected. I had always wanted to race but never had the courage to sign up," she told CNA.

"I didn't enter the race with intentions of winning. I just wanted to be a part of the tradition," she said. "This is a huge value to our community. It makes our community unique and brings us together each year."

Although the competition has only been observed in Kansas for the last 69 years, the race itself is actually much older, said Greg Bird, general chairman to the Pancake Day Board. The committee runs the Pancake Hall of Fame, which is located at the finish line.

Originating in Olney in the 15th century, the tradition stems from the tale of a woman, who was so late to church she ran with pan in hand and apron still tied around her waist.

Like other pre-Lenten observances, the event is traditionally a means for Christians to purge their kitchens of provisions which would be surrendered during the 40 days of fasting and abstinence.

"Getting ready for Lent, everyone was trying to use up all their fat before Lent started. So there was a [woman] in Olney cooking up pancakes trying to use up her fat, when the Church bells started ringing for the shriving service," Bird told CNA.

"The story is she got there a little bit late, the door was closed so she had to knock on the door of the Church to get permission to come in and the minister had to open the door, give her a kiss of peace, and let her come into the service."

The race still clings too many of the old traditions. It is only permitted for women, 18 and older, who must compete in an apron, a headscarf, and a skirt. Once the race begins, the women must flip the pancake, run on an "S" shaped course similar to one in England, and complete the race with a pancake flip. As tradition demands, the winner of the race then receives a "kiss of peace."

Numerous other activities surround the event. Over the weekend, a pancake eating and flipping contest was held, and Sunday concluded a talent show. Tuesday morning will kick off with a large breakfast, expecting to feed over a 1,000 people.

The event will include speeches from dignitaries and ministers. Since the race is international, officials from the either community will also speak at the event if they are visiting the opponent's home town. In the spirit of unity, Liberal will perform both the US national anthem and God Save the Queen. This year, the Liberal Lutheran pastor will give a homily.

The race in Liberal has only 15 spots available for competitors, but the whole day contains races inclusive to the whole community, like kid races, a shorter race for women over 50, and a men's race.

"We have a pacers' race, which is for the guys. The intention was, at the starting line, the guys would take the ladies coats and run the race a head of them so when the ladies did the race they would have their coats at the end," said Bird.

After the contest, the town gathers for a service at the First United Methodist Church put on by the community's ecumenical group, the Liberal Ministerial Alliance. Pancake Day then concludes with the awards ceremony, a video call with Olney to determine the victorious town, and a parade.

The competition is not only a financial benefit as a tourist attraction, but it is also a time for camaraderie and spiritual preparation. Pancake Chairman Mike Brack told CNA that it prepares the community for the Lenten sacrifice.

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"It's a great way to celebrate the tradition of Pancake Day and the beginning of Lent – the importance of preparing for Lent," he said.

"It's a coming together of our community, that's what it was designed to do. The Lenten message of reminding of ourselves of the sacrifices that we have to make and doing that as a community…It's very significant," he further added.

Father Jacob Schneider, parochial vicar at St. Anthony of Padua parish, told CNA the event is an extension across Christian denominations and ethnic lines. He said the event is an ecumenical experience and a unification of the entire town, which, because of the county's factory work, includes large portions of immigrants and ethnicities.

"It does, even for the very least because of pancakes, bring people together, who normally would never cross paths. In that regards, it is a really communal activity," he said. "This is one of the few overreaching activities that has somehow transcended all the different cultures."

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