Spatulas were flying and hot cakes were hopping in Holston Conference last Tuesday, as diners observed the prelude to a Christian season by dousing their dinners in syrup and gathering around the (sticky) table.
Church members from Rural Retreat to Chattanooga obligingly piled their plates with bacon or sausage on Feb. 21 as part of a traditional gorging associated with Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday. Some churches even raised the stakes by pairing their mega breakfasts with bingo games, fundraiser appeals, or special music.
“What really intrigued me was the jazz and honestly, the bacon,” said Karla Kurtz, who attended Second United Methodist Church’s Mardi Gras-themed pancake supper in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Pastors and youth directors used the occasion to teach the meaning of Lent as well as to build community.
"Since COVID happened, it’s good to find ways to get back into the church and do things together,” said the Rev. Jason Mullins, pastor of Pactolus United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. When he suggested a “feast, then fast” pancake dinner for the first time this year, his church members and several guests were willing to whip out their forks and give it a try.
“They’re really open to new things,” said Mullins, as he flipped a pancake alongside fellow flipper Greg Lady.
At Asbury United Methodist Church, Natasha DeBord said she was surprised to learn, after becoming director of student ministries three years ago, that Fat Tuesday pancake dinners weren’t a tradition at the church in Greeneville, Tennessee. It wasn't long before Asbury students were putting on their aprons and battering-up on a designated weeknight in late winter.
“Everybody wants to make the pancakes,” said DeBord, explaining that the youth like to use food coloring and sprinkles to give their hot-off-the-griddle creations some pizzaz.
The tradition of eating pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday – which kicks off the 40-day march to Easter – is related to eating rich foods before beginning the Lenten period of prayer, repentance and self-denial. In ancient times, Christians made pancakes to use up their eggs, milk and butter before cutting out forbidden foods between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Shrove is past tense of shrive, referring to the confession of sins as a preparation for Lent, a usual practice in Europe in the Middle Ages.
It's not hard to figure out how the name Fat Tuesday emerged, which is “Mardi Gras” in French. Many churches incorporate the New Orleans carnival theme into their pancake dinners, with “king cake”; beads and masks; the colors purple, green and gold; and jazz music.
Kurtz said the New Orleans theme was a big part of the fun at Tuesday’s dinner at Second United Methodist Church. In addition to pancakes, bacon and jazz on the sound system, the Knoxville church also offered mini cinnamon buns and a place where participants could get their pictures made amid the Mardi Gras splendor.
Kurtz attended the event with her husband, the Rev. Billy Kurtz, pastor of LaFollette United Methodist Church. The Second UMC volunteers were “very friendly and welcoming,” she said, and true to the spirit of the day: “There was plenty of food, and they were not stingy with the bacon.”
Brainerd United Methodist Church is one of several Holston churches that ramped up monthly fellowship dinners since the COVID pandemic put a hurt on in-person community time. “We have missed being together and eating together and sitting around the table,” said Kellie Bracken, a Brainerd member in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Last Tuesday night, Brainerd served up pancakes along with bacon, sausage, and baked apples. Like other church-kitchen cooks, Bracken doesn’t have a special recipe but “doctors up” a big-batch pancake mix with vanilla and cinnamon. (Many Shrove Tuesday tables also feature chocolate chips, whipped cream, jam, powdered sugar and fruit alongside the butter and syrup for over-the-top toppings.)
In Radford, Virginia, Grove United Methodist Church was treated, for the second year, to a pancake dinner prepared by Radford University Wesley Foundation students. The dinner was served on Ash Wednesday instead of Tuesday. A worship service followed the meal.
Ashley Verburg is a senior from Winchester, Virginia. Although she grew up in a Christian home, she said she was unfamiliar with Lent until she became involved in the Wesley Foundation.
This year’s dinner and Ash Wednesday service were particularly meaningful, Verburg said. “I was especially feeling connected to my mom, who passed away in November. I felt a little bit of comfort through this celebration of Christ's love and resurrection, and also through the time I spent with my Wesley family and my church family.”
Other churches also changed up their pancake-serving dates, including Loudon United Methodist Church (Loudon, Tennessee), who wielded their spatulas on Monday, Feb. 20, and First United Methodist Church (Morristown, Tennessee), who feasted before their Ash Wednesday service on Feb. 22.
In addition to flapjacks and the fixings, Rural Retreat United Methodist Church offered post-gorge bingo to their guests on Feb. 21. “We had a great turnout and a wonderful evening of fellowship and fun,” said the Rev. David Payne, pastor of the church in Rural Retreat, Virginia.
Several churches also saw, in their hot cakes, a hot opportunity to raise money for ministry. Asbury youth in Greeneville sold their multi-colored, sprinkled pancakes to fund an upcoming retreat. In Blountville, Tennessee, Wheeler United Methodist Church served breakfast along with an invitation to give to Camp in the Community. Tyner United Methodist Church cooked pancakes for 55 guests and raised $870 for H3 Ministries.
“We partner with H3 by cooking and packaging meals once per month for 200 homeless men and women in Chattanooga,” said the Rev. Amanda Dean, senior pastor. “We are passionate about feeding our neighbors.”
Sign up for a free weekly email subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Holston Conference's main offices are located in Alcoa, Tennessee.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.