Towards the end of the winter in rural France, locals would light torches to encourage the return of good weather, purify the earth before sowing season, and ensure a good harvest. In the fifth century A.D., Christianity adopted this tradition and associated it with the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth. Candles (or chandelles, which led to the term Chandeleur in French and “Candlemas” in English), along with round, golden crêpes, have since replaced the burning torches.
But old superstitions die hard. If you successfully flip a crêpe with the pan in your right hand while holding a coin (preferably a Louis d’or) in your left, you will have a prosperous year! And as the old French saying goes: “If you don’t want black wheat [infected with wheat smut], eat crêpes for la Chandeleur!” This belief was described in 1870 by a daily newspaper in Kansas, which explained the Chandeleur tradition to its readers: “It is believed that if you do not eat pan-cakes on this day, you will have no money for the ensuing year.”
Crêpes or Galettes?
“French pancakes.” This is what crêpes were named in the United States in the mid-19th century, having first appeared ten thousand years ago before spreading to all societies and cultures. Made with eggs, milk, flour, butter, and sugar, the American version was cooked in the oven and was nothing like the delicate, lacy whisps that have become a mainstay of the Breton reputation. Brittany is still the region where the most crêpes are consumed today. When they are made with wheat flour, crêpes are served with a sweet filling, such as jam, Nutella, cinnamon apples, or banana and peanut butter. However, if the batter is made using buckwheat flour, they drop the name “crêpe” and are referred to as galettes, served with a savory garnish.
In the early 20th century, America was introduced to crêpes Suzette, drizzled with a sauce made with caramelized sugar, butter, orange juice, and Grand Marnier liqueur. This dessert, often attributed to legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier, was sometimes even flambéed before serving and was a huge hit from Baltimore to Los Angeles. Like the fabric that gave the dish its name, crêpes Suzette is light, sophisticated, and popular. It quickly became the most fashionable French dessert around. Even General Andrews, who was tasked with enforcing Prohibition, couldn’t resist indulging in this alcohol-infused delicacy while traveling on the SS France transatlantic liner!
The reign of crêpes Suzette ended in the 1950s. “Crêpes are not by any means limited to desserts,” wrote the New York Times in 1959, in an article entitled “Crêpes: More Than Suzette.” The culinary doors were flung open to all flights of fancy – and ingredients. Whether with curried shrimp, crab in Mornay sauce, spinach in Béchamel sauce, lobster, onion soup, or beef bourguignon, crêpes were eaten in a world of new ways. The Magic Pan restaurant, which opened in San Francisco in 1966, innovated with a device capable of cooking eight crêpes at a time, and rolled out its concept across more than 100 different locations.
The Rise of Breton Crêpe Restaurants
Encouraged by the crêpe-mania of the 1970s, traditional crêpe restaurants sprang up all over the United States. From Dallas to Cincinnati and from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Fe, hungry diners would flock to eateries with names like La Crêperie or La Crêpe. “We used to serve up to 300 covers on Saturdays,” says Germain Roignant, a native of Châteauneuf-du-Faou in the Finistère département, who owns the oldest crêpe restaurant in America – the aptly-named La Crêperie in Chicago. In 1972, he had to send for his own billig, a cast iron hotplate used to “turn” the crêpe batter using a wooden spreader known as a rozell in Breton.
“They’re everywhere nowadays,” says Roignant, now in his eighties. And it’s not for nothing! The United States is the second biggest market for Krampouz, a Breton company specialized in crêpe cooking appliances. “There are crêpe restaurants in every American city today, but the market is tough. I saw a dozen open in Chicago and then close soon after,” he says. “You have to know your product – the Breton crêpe is special – and also face the facts: Crêpes will never be as popular as pizza in the United States!”
Article published in the February 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.