No individual can take credit for inventing the pancake. Just as there are different versions today, the history of pancakes indicate that it emerged in different forms in many countries.
The Earliest Pancakes
The Romans called it Alita Docia (Latin for “another sweet”). The ingredients consisted of milk, eggs and flour. These were mixed and fried. Some versions contained honey and fruit bits. Some of these contained cheese and meat, resembling omelets rather than pancakes.
During the Medieval Age, the cake began to resemble the modern variety. Ingredients like cornmeal, buckwheat and potatoes started to be used. These cakes were made using bake stones and some hearths.
Eventually many variants appeared with the ingredients used based on local culture and taste. The cakes also became associated with certain occasions. Its popularity was such that Shakespeare mentioned it no less than four times in two of his plays (All’s Well That Ends Well and As You Like It).
Early in the history of pancakes it was linked to Shrove Tuesday, the day prior to the Christian Lent. During Lent, the church forbade eating eggs and fats. This custom started early in the Medieval Age and has persisted to this day. It has become a symbol of hope and renewal.
Pancakes in America
There are indications that even the Native Americans had their own version of it. It was called nokehick (translated as “no cake”). During the early history of pancakes in America, the nokehick and other cakes were called Indian cakes.
During the 1700s, the Dutch popularized the buckwheat cake. In the mid 1750s, the hoe cake became popular. It was so called because it was cooked via flat hoe blades.
Today, pancakes are also called hotcakes or flapjacks. The modern version is derived from a Scottish cake. The usual ingredients are baking powder, flour, buttermilk and eggs. It is flavored with thick or thin syrup. Cinnamon, nutmeg and butter can be added. Other popular toppings are peanut butter and jelly or honey.
Other Types of Pancakes
The history of pancakes has produced dozens of variants. In France and England the cake is known as crepe. The usual toppings are lemon juice or syrup. The Scots call it ulster and is very similar to the American flapjack. These are served in small pieces.
In Australia the pancake is served for dessert unlike in the US where it’s usually eaten at breakfast.
In Germany they are called pfannkuchen. Sometimes it is cut into strips and consumed with soup. Somewhat confusingly, pfannkuchen is also used to refer to donuts. In the Netherlands it is called pannekoeken. They are regularly served for dinner and are fixtures in restaurants.
In Scandinavian countries the pancakes are topped with whipped cream and some fruit jam. In Sweden they have several different pancakes, some of which are fried or baked.
The history of pancakes is not limited to Europe and America. There are versions in Africa, Malaysia, the Philippines and many other countries. Wherever you go, there’s going to be a pancake in one form or another.