Several important Canadian celebrations have been hijacked into Swiss public life over the past few decades. When I came to Switzerland in the late 1970s, for example, neither Valentine’s Day nor Hallowe’en existed.
Culturally craving a jack o’ lantern one year, I paid a fortune to buy an entire thick-shelled eating pumpkin. It weighed about 10 kg and was placed in the baby stroller to be wheeled home. I do not recall what I did with the baby.
Curious about this unusual purchase, the farmer’s wife asked what I was going to do with the huge pumpkin. When I described the necessity of carving an ugly face, placing a candle inside, and the banishing of evil spirits I’m sure word went around that a wasteful witch from the New World had taken up extremely dubious residence in the Geneva countryside.
Luckily, terrorism did not exist back then.
Similarly, if you wished for a spot of cheap-and-cheerful Valentine’s Day sentiment you had to cut your own pink hearts from construction paper as you had done as a child, and have found, somewhere, some unrelated chocolate hearts wrapped in red tin-foil to glue onto them.
Now both these events have been taken care of by a healthier more worldly-wise agricultural economic outlook, and these days the farmer’s barn (much expanded) has picturesque hay wagons full of different-sized “Jack-O-Lanterns” in the fall, and on February 14th is open for a full 12 hours of frenzied bouquet-selling. The farmer’s wife has retired.
There are, however, a few small intimate events that have not yet been taken over by the entire global economy, and one of them has been celebrated in our house today – the great day of pancakes—Pancake Day!
Just as Pancake Day is not to be confused on any level with Mardi Gras (that they occur on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is a startling coincidence), the Canadian pancake is not be confused on any level with the French “crêpe.”
A pancake is fat and robust not thin and ephemeral. It is short and stout and has miraculous little holes on one side that are to be filled with butter and maple syrup and a squeeze of lemon.
A pancake can never be eaten with leeks or ham. It cannot be folded, it has to be rolled. Like a golden bullet casing, it is more than itself. It is a concept.
When we were growing up, our mother made pancakes exclusively on Pancake Day. It was glorious. The great black cast-iron frying pan was cleared of its bacon dripping and heated. The pancakes I recall as delightfully slightly rubbery, and the melted margarine and golden corn syrup were runny and decadently delicious. The squeeze of an orange wedge turned it all into an event of grace and distinction—far above ordinary fare.
In our society of affluence and over-abundance it is not so easy to re-create the magic of a simple pancake. It is, however, important to try.