As Jackie Lyle stood over her stove, she picked up one of the small aluminum pans and began to explain why pancakes are an essential dish for her family.
Several members of Lyle’s family immigrated from Paris to Louisiana in the early 1900s, including his grandmother, Jackie Richard, who was an infant at the time. Upon his arrival, the family put down roots in Rayne.
They brought many French customs with them, and the de Lyle family managed to keep many of these traditions alive for over a century, including the making of crêpes every year on February 2.
In the United States, the day is known as Groundhog Day, but in France it is “La Chandeleur” – which in English is translated as Chandeleur which commemorates that 40 days after the birth of Christ, Mary and Joseph brought their son to the temple for the rites of purification and dedication, as prescribed by the Torah.
While Americans wait in the cold for a marmot to appear, the French crepe feast dates back to the 5th century and is a mix of traditions, including the Catholic feast and a harvest festival. The day is considered very superstitious in France and is said to serve as a ritual to attract good luck throughout the year, similar to the southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and cabbage on the day of the Year.
Growing up, each Groundhog Day, Lyle’s family celebrated the holidays at her grandmother’s house in Lafayette. As long as her grandmother was alive, she organized the holiday celebration.
Everyone was in attendance as they gathered around the kitchen for a collective pancake-making experience. Although Lyle started making pancakes at age 8, surrounded by her family, it wasn’t until she was in college that she first celebrated the occasion on her own.
“It’s the strongest tradition in my family,” Lyle said.
It is celebrated without hesitation. Lyle would forgo black-eyed peas before going without pancakes on Groundhog Day.
Originally from the Allen Parish town of Oberlin, Lyle has lived in Lafayette most of her life and is recognized as the longtime executive director of Performing Arts Serving Acadiana, known as “PASA.” She shared her family’s pancake tradition and experience with her PASA staff and trainees.
Pans sat on the gas stove while the dough lay beside it. Lyle’s pans are smaller than a modern pancake pan and are made of aluminum. Worn pans recall an earlier era and tell the story of a family reunion to celebrate tradition brought from France.
In Lyle’s kitchen, her pancake recipe is in a cookbook written by her aunt Phyllis Richard. The page shows wear from years of having the cookbook open near the dough. Lyle says the cookbook was given to family members at Christmas and is a source of comfort and joy. The first of her aunt’s cookbooks was handmade and covered in fabric because her aunt was a seamstress, then an updated version came later.
Lyle clicked the stove burner and got to work, making the process effortless. As the aroma of brown butter permeated the kitchen, she gave me more details about the process.
Mixing pancakes could be a chore. In order not to have a lumpy dough, they started to incorporate the flour, salt and eggs in a mixer, creating a smooth mixture.
“Once mixed, refrigerate for a few hours to let the gluten develop, making a thick paste,” Lyle says.
Lyle has made flipping pancakes a science.
When she hears the sizzle of the pan and the edges start to curl, it’s time. Before flipping the pancake, she gently shook the pan to make sure the pancake wasn’t stuck.
Then she turned it over with the pan in her hand. The crepe landed gracefully. Somehow she managed multiple pans simultaneously – and not a single pancake was burned, lost on the floor or shattered.
I asked if she flipped pancakes with a spatula.
“What’s the point if you can do it like that?” she says.
I laughed and immediately wanted to try it myself.
Once I lifted the pan and made sure the crepe was loose on the first try, I was surprised it flipped like it was supposed to. Beginners luck!
The second time didn’t go so well. It took several tries, and finally, I had to accept the failure of the reversal. Still, I was grateful for the experience and his patience during my attempts.
For many years, only granulated sugar was used inside the pancake before rolling it up to enjoy. These days, more modern versions of the toppings exist, such as the much-loved Nutella. Although Lyle loves Nutella, she said, “The sugar sprinkled inside the pancakes is my favorite because it reminds me of my grandma.”
Lyle’s children carry on the family tradition of celebrating Groundhog Day by making homemade pancakes with their growing families.
February 2 isn’t just another dreary winter’s day for Lyle and her family — and she’s encouraging others to join in the fun.
Makes 40 pancakes. The recipe is from Jackie Richard.
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon of salt
4 large eggs
1 cup cold milk
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup cold water
Salad oil or butter (used to coat the pan)
1. Combine flour, salt and eggs; mix well.
2. Stir in milk, water and butter. Mix well.
3. Refrigerate the batter for at least two hours, allowing the flour particles to puff up and soften so the pancakes have a fluffy texture.
4. Lightly brush bottom of 6- or 7-inch pancake pan with salad oil or butter; Heat skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking.
5. Pour in a little ¼ cup of batter and quickly tilt the pan in all directions and pour the batter all over the bottom of the pan.
6. Cook for about 1 minute and flip the crepe to the other side. Cook until the side is speckled brown.
Pancakes can be frozen between waxed paper. Take out, thaw and use for desserts.
If you’re going to eat the pancakes like Grandma Richard de Lyle, roll them up on Groundhog Day and use butter instead of oil. Lyle also recommends mixing the paste in a blender.