A Brief History of Pancakes
From ancient Greece to Shrove Tuesday celebrations, the sweet or savory flat cakes have long been a culinary staple
In 2022, researchers excavating the Shanidar Cave complex in Iraq unearthed the charred remains of some of the world’s oldest cooked leftovers. As Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanical scientist at the University of Liverpool and the lead author of a paper on the discovery, says in an email, “It looked like the seeds were soaked before they were cooked. You can tell if it’s soaked or cracked before it’s mashed into a patty. From this, we suggested [the food underwent] something like a flat preparation.” The 70,000-year-old culinary treat was, in other words, a proto pancake.
Defined simply as flat cakes prepared from starch-based batter, pancakes—or at least rudimentary versions of them—were one of humanity’s earliest, most important foodstuffs. While previous research suggested cooking emerged during the Neolithic era (roughly 7000 to 1700 B.C.E.), when prehistoric people transitioned to larger, more structured communities and began to domesticate crops and animals, more recent findings indicate otherwise. Kabukcu cites evidence of “cooking with different plants (tubers, nuts, seeds) much earlier than the Neolithic.” Some 30,000 years ago, for instance, Stone Age people made flour out of cattails and ferns, likely combining the powder with water and baking the mixture on a hot rock to create a flat cake.
Today, the pancake remains one of the easiest foods to cook. Simply take a starch, be it wheat, barley, spelt or another flour, then add water, milk, perhaps an egg or two, and—if hoping to make a thick, fluffy pancake—a raising agent. Combine, then pour or scoop the mixture onto a hot surface, flipping the patty once bubbles appear to produce a perfectly golden-brown cake.
While the base pancake recipe is largely the same around the world, different countries have found ways to make the food their own. In the United States, pancakes come slathered with maple syrup and butter; in France, thin crepes are made from wheat flour or buckwheat, without a raising agent like baking powder or soda. Other global varieties include Ethiopian injera, Korean buchimgae, Chinese jianbing, North Indian cheela, Venezuelan cachapas, South Indian dosa, Dutch babies and Moroccan msemen.
“What links pancakes from different ingredients and different cultures … is their flat shape, which helps them cook through quickly,” says food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark. “They’re relatively simple, and their smallish size makes them easy to eat.”
Early pancake history
The first written records of pancakes come from the ancient Greeks and Romans. Around 500 B.C.E., Athenian poet Cratinus described “a [flat cake] hot and shedding morning dew.” Some 600 years later, in the late second century C.E., Greek physician Galen included a recipe in his On the Properties of Foodstuffs that’s similar to how Russian blinis or Canadian griddlecakes are prepared today: “What are called girdle-cakes by the Athenians but griddle-cakes by us, the Asiatic Greeks, are prepared with olive oil alone,” he wrote. “The oil is placed in a frying pan that is put on a smokeless fire, and when it has become hot the wheaten flour, soaked in a large amount of water, is poured into it.” Galen noted that these sweet treats were often enjoyed with honey.
To the east, in what is now Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwest China, excavations at the Subeixi Cemeteries have uncovered millet pancakes dating to between 500 and 300 B.C.E., making them roughly contemporary to Cratinus.
These early examples might fall under the modern definition of pancake. But they weren’t referred to as such at the time. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “pancake,” derived from the Middle English panecake or ponkake, only came into use during the medieval era. One text, Thomas Austin’s Two 15th-Century Cookery Books, advised readers to set a pan over the fire, pour in the batter and let it spread to “makyst a pancake.”
A food of the people
With its limited ingredients and short preparation time, the pancake has historically been a working-class food. “One of the great points about leavened pancakes and all the tribe of griddle cakes,” wrote Elizabeth David in the 1977 compendium English Bread and Yeast Cookery, “was that they provided a means of using [cheaper] meals and flours such as barley, buckwheat, oatmeal, which were not suitable for bread proper.” Part of the batter bread family, pancakes have an essential composition that’s more liquid than flour, with a runny batter replacing dough, which requires kneading.
The pancake’s status as a food of the people stretches back centuries. In the 1750 cookbook Country Housewife’s Family Companion, author William Ellis praised pancakes as “one of the cheapest and more serviceable dishes of a farmer’s family in particular; because all the ingredients of the common ones are of his own produce, are ready at hand upon all occasions.”
When Prussia besieged Paris for four months in 1870 and 1871, bread grew scarce, particularly for the lower classes. Many Parisians turned to crepes, which had long been considered “lowly fare for ordinary people,” writes Ken Albala in Pancake: A Global History. By the end of the year, however, it was virtually impossible to find flour.
The shortage was a “disaster for families,” says Mary Pickering, a historian at San Jose State University, “as crepes made from flour had proved useful to satisfy the appetites of many hungry family members, especially children.”
Pickering adds, “Crepe makers, who were chiefly women, had replaced chestnut sellers on the boulevards, and now they were out of a job. Desperate mothers had to become creative to feed their children. They now made crepes out of rice, which was still plentiful and cheap.”
Miners, lumberjacks, cowboys and urban workers are all associated with pancakes. In homes where meat and fish were too expensive to procure, pancakes served as culinary staples that could be eaten on the go or taken back to work. According to Pancake: A Global History, “Presumably this was one of the easy-to-make and filling foods that could be prepared in great quantities in short order by cooks in the lumber camps. … Breakfast [was] an especially filling meal, fueling the body for the day’s hard labor to follow.”
While pancakes were especially popular with the working class, they weren’t limited to this audience. In February 1619, English noblewoman Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, Pembroke and Montgomery, wrote a diary entry detailing how she made “pancakes with my women in the great chamber.” As Amanda E. Herbert explains in Female Alliances: Gender, Identity and Friendship in Early Modern England, Clifford shared a bedchamber with her daughter Margaret and their servants; together, the women cooked pancakes and other sweet treats over the fireplace. “Sugar was an expensive commodity,” Herbert adds. “By locating confectionary work in bedchambers, elite women may have hoped to keep it from being overused or protect it from being stolen.”
Almost 300 years later, during the late Victorian era, English citizens occasionally ate caviar pancakes as part of the savory course, a small salty or piquant dish served at the end of the meal, after pudding (better known to Americans as dessert) but before fruit and nuts.
Pancakes around the world
Pancakes are celebratory, a festive food considered by many to be “a symbol for life,” perhaps because “the bread-pancake made of unleavened flour and water was the staff of life” (or a dietary staple) in numerous ancient civilizations, the New York Times wrote in 1990. Eaten in Ethiopia, Eritrea and some parts of Somalia, injera (made of teff flour) is served at weddings, birthday parties and family gatherings. Traditionally, injera is enjoyed communally, with two or three people eating from the same plate. In North India, chilla, a pancake made with chickpea-based gram flour, is commonly served at weddings.
Literary classics reference pancakes’ role in revelry, too. In John Steinbeck’s seminal 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family eats pancakes topped with syrup and sugar after Al announces his engagement to Agnes Wainwright. Even Shakespeare knew that pancakes were for merrymaking: In Pericles, a fisherman says, “Come, thou shalt go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks, and thou shalt be welcome.”
In much of the Western world, pancakes are eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent and its 40 days of austerity. The holiday’s name is derived from “shrive,” an archaic verb meaning to confess or give penance (the original purpose of Shrove Tuesday).
Also known as Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday’s association with the flat cakes probably came about pragmatically. Early Lenten rules banned dairy and meat, so Christians had to use up their eggs and milk before fasting began.
It was during the Middle Ages that Shrove Tuesday took on a more raucous air, with English peasants spending the day gorging themselves on sugary, buttery richness. In many towns, a shriving bell was rung to call villagers to confession. As Pancake: A Global History notes, one local legend tells of a housewife who “was still busy cooking pancakes one morning when a particularly zealous vicar rang the bell rather early. Still in her apron she took off, pan in hand, flipping as she went, so as not to spoil the efforts of her labor.” To commemorate the woman’s dedication, some English towns host pancake-flipping contests and races, the oldest of which is still held annually in Olney, Buckinghamshire.
Food writer Felicity Cloake, who spent many hours investigating the perfect pancake recipe for the Guardian, says, “The Shrove Tuesday variety of [the] pancake, wafer thin and rich with the butter and eggs we’re supposed to be forsaking for the next 40 days, is [in England] now largely confined to Pancake Day itself.”
Pancakes play a central role in Judaism, too, with Jewish people eating latkes to commemorate the Hannukah miracle. Today, latkes are often made of potatoes (either shredded or pureed) and fried in oil, a riff on Ukrainian kartoflani platske. Potatoes arrived in Europe from the New World during the 16th century but were only widely farmed in Eastern Europe some 200 years later. Before potatoes became widely available, Jewish peoples ate latkes made of buckwheat flour or cheese, building on an earlier Italian Jewish tradition.
Some attempts to rethink latkes, like incorporating cumin or zucchini, have sparked indignation. But part of the appeal of the pancake rests in its endless customizability. Add-ins run the gamut from blueberries to chocolate chips, lemon, sugar, candied ginger, ham and tomatoes. In Indonesia, serabi kuah pancakes sport a bright green color thanks to their inclusion of coconut milk and pandan flavoring.
In the Netherlands, pannenkoeken are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, much like buchimgae in Korea. Farinata, a flat cake made with chickpea flour, is enjoyed as an appetizer in Liguria, Italy, and known in France as socca. According to legend, farinata was an accidental invention. Buckling under thrashing waves, the contents of a boat’s galley—including jars of pureed chickpeas—were tossed about during a storm around the year 1200. The chickpea mass congealed and cooked in the next day’s sun, yielding round, brown discs that were quickly eaten by the surviving sailors.
Every culture has its own version of the pancake—and with it a story. “However many pancakes I make to test recipes, I could never tire of them,” says Cloake. “Every year, I’m surprised just how delicious something so simple can be, especially that inevitable first disaster that’s widely regarded as the cook’s perk. That’s always the best one.”