Eat, Pray, Judge: Pancakes With The Episcopalians

by Dan Packel

With a rarely seen uncle who’s been involved in Scientology for decades, I’m a sucker for stories about the “church.” Thanks to the New Yorker, I had an informative month of February. But I was most interested to discover that their Celebrity Centre is an excellent, undiscovered destination for a high-quality, cheap lunch when in Hollywood. As a committed eater, I was curious: Do other religions offer equally worthy opportunities for subsidized dining?

A recent dinner conversation with some Episcopalian friends provided an opportunity to begin an investigation. “Our church is doing a pancake supper for Shrove Tuesday,” said Emily, over a meal of eggplant, polenta and fresh-baked foccacia. “You should come along.”

I had to do a little research first. It turned out that Shrove Tuesday matched up with Mardi Gras; this was the day prior to Ash Wednesday, a time for celebration before beginning the deprivations of Lent. I figured I didn’t need to repent to enjoy a big plate of pancakes.

When I arrived at St. Mark’s Church for the supper, there was some confusion about when pancakes would actually be served. On Emily’s direction, I’d shown at 6 pm, while other pieces of information circulating noted that the event started at 6:30, or even 7.

No problem. After a warm greeting from the small kitchen, where a handful of parishioners appeared hard at work preparing the meal, I was directed to a table stocked with libations. Sadly, a leader of the church prominent in the local beer scene had passed away recently. But there was a significant cache of local craft beer left over from his funeral service. I opened a bottled of Stoudt’s Pale Ale (crisp yet hearty) and started making conversation.

The church members were a welcoming lot — clearly happy to share a meal with guests. I was expecting to make a token contribution for the food, but couldn’t find the opportunity to do so. Austerity didn’t seem to be on the agenda either. Learning that I’d just started working in the office of a local restaurant known for its wine and beer program, Rector Sean Mullen told me: “I don’t care if you’re an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, a Catholic or a Jew… If you’re working on beverages there, I want you to become a member of this church.”

Sooner than expected, owing to the confusion over time, people began gravitating towards the food table. I followed them over. Some members of the kitchen contingent were now serving from behind the table. I piled my paper plate high with pancakes, strawberry compote, a banana nut topping, crisp bacon and juicy sausage links. The scrambled eggs came out from the kitchen later.

Then it was over to the long communal table, decorated with a swatch of glitter down the middle, looking as if a pixie had just run a 50-yard dash down its center. I dug into my meal, while following along with the spirited discussions surrounding me — ranging from liberal-minded debates on religious doctrine to tales of college road trips in the days before many Ivy League schools went co-ed.

While performing my due diligence, I learned there’s a rich tradition of pre-Lenten eating. German Americans traditionally consume fastnacht, or fried potato dough served with dark corn syrup, while Polish Americans go for pączki, fried dough balls, akin to doughnuts. In the British Isles, and the church communities that have roots there, the food of choice is pancakes.

As an agnostic from a family with a complicated religious heritage, churches are unfamiliar locales. But breakfast for dinner, when even just adequately prepared, provides undeniable comfort. Pancakes evidently emerged as a Shove Tuesday staple because they allowed members of the community to use up rich foods like milk, eggs and butter before the fasting period. These imperatives were certainly met in the moist, fluffy cakes, only slightly cooled during the trip from kitchen to table.

I can recommend these Episcopalians for a variety of reasons. The food was solid, to be sure. But the spirit of inclusiveness was even stronger. We were part of a diverse crowd of straights, gays, blacks, whites, Asians — all along the same table. There was even room for the disheveled-looking dude in the leather jacket down at the end of the table (though he wasn’t doing much conversing, just eating). I liked the free beer and wine, too.

But these people weren’t all saints. When, serving duty complete, Emily finally sat down with her own plate, she shared a gripe she held with one of her co-religionists.

“No… not that sausage,” a diner had apparently complained. “Can I have that one?” she said, pointing at what presumably was a more precisely cooked specimen.

Emily had managed to keep her mouth shut until she was done and seated with friends. “Honey, it’s a free sausage.”

I hope they know I was grateful for mine. But a final note for the Episcopalians — there’s rarely an excuse for Aunt Jemima’s in the plastic bottle. Next time I’ll make my own contribution: real maple syrup.

Dan Packel writes about food (and more!) from his home in Philadelphia. You can also follow him here.

Photo by D’Arcy Norman.