The tradition of Liberal’s annual pancake celebration actually started across the Atlantic, in the town of Olney, England, over 500 years ago.
Legend has it that in 1445, a woman in Olney was preparing for Lent by making pancakes to use up all her cooking fat (an ingredient she was forbidden to use during the forty days of Lent). Upon hearing the church bells ring for service, she ran to the church wearing her headscarf and apron—and still carrying her frying pan. In the years that followed, it became a tradition in Olney for women to race to the church each year on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent), carrying a frying pan and dressed in an apron and scarf. The first woman to reach the church and collect the kiss of peace from the church bell-ringer is the winner.
In 1950, members of the Liberal Jaycees read about the Olney pancake race in a Time magazine article and challenged the English town to a race.
“The first race in 1950 formed a lot of friendships,” says JoAnn Combs, a board member for the Liberal Pancake Race. “We have some letters back and forth from leaders in both towns from when it started. People in England were ecstatic about the competition.”
The townspeople of Olney agreed to the idea of a friendly transatlantic contest. Now, every year at 11:55 a.m. local time on Shrove Tuesday, female racers from Liberal and Olney face off for international bragging rights. In Liberal, the 415-yard race is open only to women over 18 with a local address. Men, kids and out-of-towners can compete against each other in the men’s race, youth races, or the Pancake Chase 5K. In the main race, as well as the men’s and youth races, participants wear headscarves and aprons. Of course, they also carry a frying pan. In years past, race winners in each of the towns reported their results over the phone, but now the local champions communicate via video chat to see who has the best race time.
Since the international competition started in 1950, the overall standing between the two cities has favored Liberal (they have 37 wins, while Olney stands at 29). But Viv Evans, a member of the pancake race board in Olney, says the residents aren’t bothered too much by that.
“We all remember that it is all a bit of fun and don’t get too upset at losing,” she says.
Combs says that the race, which has grown to include other events such as a talent show, parade and pancake flipping contest, has created lasting friendships between the two towns (including several international visits), as well as a sense of civic pride. “The more it developed, and the more friendships that grew, the more ownership we took,” she says.
Evans, who’s paid a visit to Liberal herself, says Olney also welcomes a few enthusiastic Kansas visitors each year. “We have had many visitors from Liberal, and this year we had two couples, one on their honeymoon,” she says.