Would you like to know your neighbours better? When I was a little girl, our elderly neighbours had spare keys to our house. We fed each other’s pets during holidays, and were in and out of each other’s houses. Am I right in feeling like that’s not so common these days?
Maybe it’s because more people are out all day, now. Most of us are busier outside the home, and more likely to be commuting, than I was a kid.
If you think fondly of more connected communities I have an idea. In a few weeks’ time, the church calendar gives you an excuse to gather your neighbours together – or any other group of people you want to get to know better – and throw a pancake party.
Shrove Tuesday is the last day before Lent. Traditionally, it’s the last day before a few weeks of fasting, to focus the mind on following Jesus in the lead-up to Easter. The fast used to be (and still is, for Eastern Orthodox Christians) serious business. For six weeks you ate no meat or other animal products, no wine and no oils.
So the day before Lent began (with the solemnities of Ash Wednesday), people would use up all those things so their pantries were clear of temptation. What uses lots of eggs, milk and oil? Pancakes!
Mardi Gras is the French version, and it’s also knows as Carneval/Carnival/Karneval in other parts of Europe and South America. The point in most places is to have a party before the serious reflection begins.
This year Shrove Tuesday is 4 March, and an ideal time to meet your neighbours, or maybe the families of your kids’ new school or kindy friends.
Last Shrove Tuesday we were living in a downtown apartment attached to a hotel. We took a tray of pancakes, maple syrup and napkins to the staff downstairs and made lots of new friends. This year we’re in a new house, so I’ll be inviting the folks in the street to drop in.
People often feel like they need a reason to step out of their comfort zone and into a stranger’s house, so I reckon Shrove Tuesday provides a handy way to break the ice.
If you’re keen but not sure where to start, here are seven tips for throwing a low-key, no-fuss, meet-the-neighbours or hang-out-with-friends pancake party at your place.
1. Make some cute but easy invitations
If you have kids, chances are you have photos of them. Here’s the invitation we made last year. It took a few minutes in Picasa to write some text over the photo, and I printed them out as photos for 29 cents each. Easy-peasy!
For a charming, non-techie option, you could just write or print a couple of sentences on some squares of coloured cardboard – just like a postcard – and drop them in letterboxes. It’ll probably take half an hour, max, and if you’ve got kids to help you decorate them, then that’s a great way to involve the whole household.
You don’t need to do anything elaborate or expensive, just make sure your guests know you’re serious about inviting them, and where to come!
2. Make or buy the pancakes ahead of time
Unless you are giving up eggs, milk and oil for Lent anyway (no, thought not), it’s pretty inexpensive to buy pancakes. They’re often sold as smaller ‘hotcakes’. If you are keen to host your neighbours, but time-poor, feel free to go this route. It’s what we did last year and probably what we’ll do again.
You can get gluten-free and dairy-free versions, too, to cater for different needs.
If you’re making them from scratch, remember that pancake batter does well if stored in the fridge overnight, so you can definitely make the batter ahead of time. It often thickens up, so just a bit more milk to the batter when you get it out.
Or better yet, fry the pancakes the night before, keep them in the fridge and heat them in a warm oven for the party.
When I was a student, my flatmate Kent and I used to get up at silly o’clock to do pancake breakfasts for our youth group. In my experience it always takes longer (and more pans!) than you think it will to cook pancakes for a crowd, so whatever you can do ahead of time will help your stress levels on the day, and give you maximum time with your guests and away from the kitchen.
3. Invite people to drop in during a set period
This kind of community event lends itself to a drop-in approach, and everyone will know what to expect if your invitation includes a window with a start and a finish time.
4. Keep it simple. Really simple.
You’re inviting people over for pancakes, and everyone will be super-impressed at your hospitality even if pancakes and lemon-and-sugar are the only things on offer.
One topping is plenty. Feel free to do a sweet and savoury option, or something more elaborate if you really enjoy cooking, but it’s not at all necessary. Cups of tea are also optional, especially if you provide some iced water with lemon or mint in it.
The more menu and drinks options, the more faffing around (often away from your guests), so don’t feel like you need to go the whole hog for this kind of event.
Meeting your neighbours, or catching up with friends, is the real point of the day. One pancake in the hand is all your guests need.
5. Give your kids jobs
Kids of all ages can have important jobs to make a pancake party, so before you start, have a household meeting to decide who can contribute what.
Can your toddler toddle down the street with you to deliver the invitations? Your pre-schooler might be keen on answering the door or offering napkins to guests. Older children can take pancake or drink orders, deliver pancakes, collect dirty dishes – and of course cook and clean!
6. Write down people’s names before the day finishes
If you’re inviting neighbours, you might meet a whole bunch of people for the first time. Take a moment once the house is empty, to note down who came, and where they live, so you can greet them by name when you’re next putting the recycling out at the same time.
You might even want to have name-tags. I know, I know, they might seem a bit naff, but if most people are strangers to each other, they’ll probably appreciate the name-remembering help.
7. Don’t cook dinner!
Whether you do an after-school or dinner-time slot, you definitely get a free pass on cooking tea! Everyone will be stuffed with pancakes, so do a few dishes and put your feet up once everyone’s gone.
I’m super keen to hear what you think about this. Please leave a comment with your tips and secrets, and any thoughts you have about doing something this year.
I’m looking forward to hearing your stories!