Happy Pancake Day!

In the Christian tradition, today the the final day before the beginning of Lent, also known as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), Faschingsdienstag, Malasada Day, Sprengidagur, Martes de Carnaval, and Pancake Day! All these terms refer to the last hurrah of overdoing it before the Lenten fasting begins. Celebrating by eating pancakes uses up your supply of oil, eggs, milk, and sugar, which you may be giving up until Easter. So let's celebrate the pancake!

Pancake Race

Many communities have a pancake festival or some kind of gathering to eat pancakes together before Lent. One of the oldest is in the village of Olney, England where an annual Pancake Race dates back five centuries! On Shrove Tuesday, women compete against each other in a 415-yard race in which they must carry a pancake in a skillet. The legend is that when the church bells rang for Shrove Tuesday service in the year 1445, a certain housewife was not finished grilling the cakes. Not wishing to ruin her pancakes, she ran to the church with pan in hand. The traditional race will be carried on today in Liberal, Kansas as well. The Kansas event is now a three-day festival.

The Pancake Project

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The Pancake Project is a blog chronicling the art of the pancake. The author has been experimenting with creative cakes for over ten years, and welcomes submissions of your best flapjacks. See pancakes that look like other food, scenes, and even 3D artworks made of pancakes! Other pancake blogs include Illinois Pancakes with reviews of pancake restaurants in Illinois and Daddy Cakes, which is a blog attached to a baking products store, but they feature pancake news and stories from all over.

History of the Pancake

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Pancakeology has a wealth on information about pancakes. The history of flatbread goes back at least to ancient Rome, where Alita Dolcia (another sweet) was consumed. The use of pancakes before Lent dates back to medieval times in Europe. Native Americans already had soft flatbread made from cornmeal before the Europeans arrived. Why are pancakes so popular? Because they are made of simple ingredients people have on hand, can be made quickly with available appliances, and lend themselves to additions of your favorite flavorings. With some variations, fried flatbreads are found in dining places all over the world. Image by Flickr use Gilmoth.

World Records

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The largest pancake breakfast ever was held on February 9th, 2008 when the Fargo (North Dakota) Kiwanis Club served up 34,818 pancakes! The Guinness organization awarded the Kiwanis the record of "most pancakes made in 8 hours".  The "most pancakes made by an individual" title belongs to Steve Hamilton of Chris Cakes, who poured and flipped 956 pancakes on May 6th, 2009. In February of 2009, chefs Sean McGinlay and Natalie King built a stack of pancakes 29.5 inches tall at a hotel in Glasgow, Scotland to claim the "tallest stack" record.

Pancakes in Literature

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In the rarely-seen children's book Little Black Sambo, the story ends with a large dinner of pancakes. The racially-charge illustrations and the name itself overshadowed the basic story of a boy and four tigers. In 1957, Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett started a restaurant and used a combination of their names to name it Sambo's. The chain used pictures of the story's characters to decorate its dining rooms and advertising, including the pancakes. The connection with the book led to charges of racism, and the restaurant chain went bankrupt in 1981. Other children's book featuring pancakes are The Great Pancake Escape and If You Give a Pig a Pancake.

Pancake Events

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The International House of Pancakes (iHop) celebrates Pancake Day when Lent is well underway. The explanation is that the odd date extends their fundraising drive for the Children's Miracle Network. So whether you can take advantage of the free pancakes depends on whether you are giving up those treats for Lent. However, you can still donate to the fundraiser!

The Pancake Bunny

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The most famous pancake on the internet is that which lies on the head of Oolong,  the Pancake Bunny. Hironori Akutagawa took photographs of his very patient pet rabbit with various items balanced on his head. The picture of Ooolong balancing a pancake became ubiquitous in a picture used for forums and websites with the caption "I have no idea what you're talking about"¦ so here's a bunny with a pancake on its head."

Pancakes!

James Provan made a name for himself with the joyful music video Pancakes! in 2006. Happy Pancake Day!

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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