Lent begins Wednesday and if it is no longer observed as strictly as it once was, with its fasts and fish, for many it still is a time of cutting back and repenting the lust for life's luxuries.
Then -- and now, in certain parts of the world -- people made sure that they had something to repent by a final round of partying -- the last licks before Lent.
Some pre-Lenten celebrations were aimed at using up ingredients forbidden during the fasting season. The Shrove Tuesday pancake races in England are one example of the way people made a virtue of the necessity of getting rid of the eggs, grease, lard and drippings banned during the pre-Easter fast.
A pancake race might amuse your neighbors, but it probably wouldn't please your guests -- particularly if the sidewalks are icy. Instead, you could give a sit-down Shrove Tuesday pancake party tomorrow to uphold at least a part of the tradition.
Cheapest would be a Diner's Delight -- pancakes hot off the griddle with several types of jam, melted butter, syrups and sausage, bacon and ham. Or you could make blinis stuffed with an inexpensive caviar and topped with sour cream.
If you'd like to make it a bit more elaborate, hire a caterer to put together a cre pe party. As an example of what it might cost, Ridgewell's (301-652-1515) would charge $25 a person and up for a party for 20 people. The price, which depends on how elaborate the fillings are and what other foods you'd like to serve with them, covers food, equipment and personnel, including the cre pe maker. You can choose dessert cre pes filled with a variety of fruits or main course ones stuffed with things like beef curry, crab meat with caper sauce or sweetbreads.
If that seems too expensive, have a Pennsylvania Dutch evening -- a Fastnacht, as they call the night before Lent begins -- and rent burners and deep-fat fryers so that everyone can make their own funnel cakes, dripping the batter into the oil through funnels and then dipping the finished product in powdered sugar.
Shrove Tuesday in England, Fastnacht in Germany, and in France it's Fat Tuesday -- Mardi Gras -- and if the French began it, the residents of New Orleans have made it an art. Unless you live in an extremely long house or are insanely optimistic about the weather, it is probably best to forego the Mummer's parade, but you can transport your guests to New Orleans by making a dinner based on that city's specialties: pompano en papillotte, jambalaya, crayfish bisque, oysters Rockefeller, omelet souffle'.
If your cooking skills aren't up to that, settle for serving two famous New Orleans cocktails, the Ramos gin fizz (put a lightly beaten egg white into a cocktail shaker, add 3 oz. of gin, 1 1/2 tsps. of superfine sugar, 1 oz. of lemon juice, 1 oz. of heavy cream, three drops of orange flower water and cracked ice. Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass) and the Sazerac (pour 2 oz. bourbon into a cocktail shaker, add 1 tsp. sugar and two dashes Angostura bitters and stir until sugar dissolves. Put three dashes of Pernod in a glass and top with the bourbon mixture. Add ice).
Put Dixieland music on the phonograph, turned up LOUD, and let the carnival spirit take hold.
Would you prefer a more traditional carnival? Amusements Unlimited (301-681-8060) will help you put one together. There are Wheels of Fortune, big and small; Hi-Strikers, those instruments designed to embarrass a man by revealing that when he lowers the sledgehammer, he is not a moose but a mouse; magicians and clowns, and for a very reasonable $35 a day, table model machines to turn out cotton candy, popcorn or snow cones.
Find a fortune teller in the Yellow Pages (or produce a friend wrapped in turban and bangles to predict the future). Swamp the house with balloons (200 11-inch ones, with everything you need to send them floating into the air and the strings to bring them down again, are $59.50, also from Amusements Unlimited).
Or why not really give yourself something to repent and lure your friends into a gambling hell? Forty days of fasting should fill up their pockets again, and, if you'd like to make a headstart on virtue, charge everyone for the chips and donate any proceeds from the evening to charity. Set up card tables for poker and blackjack and get friends to deal, or, if you'd like to do the evening on a more professional scale, call in Show Biz Productions (202-723-4215) who will give you a Las Vegas Casino with roulette wheels, crap tables and croupiers. Prices for a gaming table with dealer start at $150, although you can rent the equipment without the dealer for less.
As for what to serve, sandwiches of course, named for John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who invented the blessed things when, in 1762, he spent 24 hours at a gaming table and, as hunger took him, slapped his meat between two slices of bread so he could eat with one hand and throw away his money with the other.