Pancake Challenge – Challenging American Food Traditions

How better to celebrate Shrove Tuesday than by stuffing yourself with 15 all-American pancakes, glued together in a pyramid-like stack with peanut butter, jam and… err… guacamole?

If that sounds appealing to you, then get down to The Diner this week, for the pancake challenge they’ve boldly set for guests to celebrate Pancake Day. And, if you can polish off the lot in thirty minutes, you can get the whole ‘meal’ free of charge (usually £20).

I sit down feeling confident; after all, these are pancakes. Kid’s food. It’s not like I’m eating a 24-pound steak. But when this gigantic beehive of dessert is placed in front of me, I begin to entertain doubts as large as the stack itself. A gaggle of excited and curious waiting staff gather around and set me a timer – my thirty minutes had begins. A pancake every two minutes – “shouldn’t be too hard,” I think. “I can do this.” The first pancake is delicious: fluffy, buttery and sweet, with a lick of peanut butter spread on its underbelly. It hit the spot. I even mop up some of the tasty treats of marshmallow, glazed banana slices and bacon which encircle the pancake-stack.

About twenty minutes later, however, I grind to a halt, chewing the stodgy melange of fat and marshmallow. I admit defeat. Groaning in pain, I survey the battlefield of the plate. Eleven pancakes down. Unsurprisingly, I don’t feel proud of myself. Eating to see just how much food you can cram into your body is like drinking to see how much booze you can handle; it diminishes the pleasure of the taste. It doesn’t matter how tasty your pancakes are, or how delicious the topping – and, with whipped cream, marshmallows and raspberry sauce drizzled all over, it was certainly tasty – after the eighth slice or so it just tastes like cardboard. Yum becomes yuck with surprising speed. And that goes for any food overindulged upon.

So, why is it that we – and, perhaps more accurately, the Americans – are so fascinated by overindulgence? There is almost a sexual quality to it, proving your prowess of consumption. He who eats the most is the alpha male. And even if stretching your stomach isn’t quite your thing, you can still get a voyeuristic kick out of watching people do it to themselves – Man vs. Food is an absurdly popular show, which everyone admits to enjoying without any explanation necessary: Of course you’re fascinated by a man taking on grotesquely large slabs of meat!

In an age where abundance is taken for granted, overindulgence is merely an antidote against boredom. Making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is one of those quaint old traditions that has lost its original relevance (as a way to use up rich foods prior to the fast of Lent) but has, instead, been translated for a post-modern generation through ironic revival, sometimes through publicity stunts such as, perhaps, challenging diners to eat 15 pancakes at once. And a stack of American pancakes with bacon and whipped cream is as American as the military-industrial complex. Or apple pie.

One of the common themes underlying many of the most serious issues in the modern food industry is thoughtless consumption: essentially, people being unaware of what they’re consuming and what it’s doing to their bodies. If people were aware of the effects, they would probably cut back, as, in fact, evidence has shown; the more obese society becomes, the more conscious people become of why that is the case. Eating competitions – seeing how much food your body can physically handle – are symptomatic of this culture of ignorance. When I first witnessed my challenge, the enormous fortress of fat, nigh-on a foot in height, I thought “this food is going to become me”. Literally. “If I eat this, this pile of fatty food is going to be absorbed into my body and will become a part of me. Do I want that?” Call me un-American, but I don’t. Despite the novelty, the entertainment element, I’m all for bringing on Lent. I think that, this year, I’m going to give up pancakes…

For more info on the Pancake Challenge see:

words Chris Zacharia


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