a brief history of the pancake

Pancakes. The mere mention of the word and watch as eyes light up. Pancakes are the epitome of comfort food. Whether you’re eating them while wearing cozy slippers and lounging late one morning, or enjoying them as a fulfilling dinner, pancakes are a universal feel-good food. It’s perhaps the one meal that easily appeals to all ages, and can be found across the globe. Sweet or savory, and regardless of what you call them, this thin round flat delightful disc musters up memories and easily gets our stomachs grumbling.

So if in fact pancakes can be sweet or savory, what makes a pancake well, a pancake? By definition:

* The ingredients may vary, but all pancakes are foremost composed of starchy batter.
* For it to be considered a pancake the batter is poured onto a flat hot surface.
* The batter is then cooked – or proper terminology baked – in a pan or on anything flat.
“Thus a pan does not the pancake make”.

It’s unclear exactly how far back in our ancient history pancakes became a staple dish in our diet. Archeologists though have been able to track examples of grain-based cakes back to the Stone Age. Historians thus began discussing the presence of a form of pancakes in our early culinary repertoire around the cultivation of grains, with flat rocks serving at the time as primeval griddles. Pancakes continued to evolve in Biblical times with references found in the Old Testament as well as in Roman and Greek records.2

Onward to more modern times, in Europe we find the pancake serving both commoners and nobles alike, though it would be the presence of rich ingredients, butter as an example, which would distinguish the plate. Pancake A Global History by Ken Albala notes the first recipe for a crêpes was found in Livre fort excellent in the 1540s, and Good Huswifes Handmaids for the Kitchen had the first English recipe printed in 1588. From there on, we can flip through text, but according to Albala, it’s the Dutch in the seventeenth-century that may lay claim to our modern mouthwatering recipe. (Side note, we also must credit the Dutch for wondrous waffles and aebleskivers, a real treat). Pancakes populated the New World by this time and had become widely popular in British cookbooks. By the eighteenth century E.Smith’s The Compleat Houswife, the first cookbook printed in America, comes complete with a recipe for the protagonist of this story. Albala notes the most popular English cookbook of the century on both sides of the Atlantica The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse 1747 had five pancake recipes listed. It’s in 1796 though, the first all-American cookbook American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, that the pancake is given true glory and essentially put on a pedestal.3

It’s the versatility of this dish, and it’s lenience with the range of ingredients mixed together, that makes the pancake perhaps the most popular food of all time across generations and continents. Whether it’s served up as a street food, or doled up for fine dining, there’s great comfort in knowing this comforting dish will let you leave the table smiling and satisfied. From a historical perspective there’s still much on the plate to cover. It’s a challenge though to condense all of the pancake’s true global history into one page (certainly impossible to do so without building up an appetite). But it’s clear, throughout history, and importantly across cultures, the pancake clearly has a role to play and why so many people have a penchant for pancakes.

Many thanks to Globetrotter Diaries (@globetrottings), OMG! Yummy (@omgyummyblog) and Chow & Chatter (@chowandchatter) for the inspiration behind dishing up a brief history of the pancake. Be sure not to miss a taste of their delectable pancake dishes: Simply Perfect Pancake Recipes.
For additional details into the history behind pancakes (and books referenced in this post):

Pancake A Global History by Ken Albala 1,3
A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat 2
Apicus –a recipe for ova sfongia ex lacte (egg sponge with milk) in the oldest Latin cookbook

Photo courtesy of Beth Lee OMG! Yummy

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