As Jackie Lyle stood over her stove, she picked up one of the small aluminum pans and began to explain the story behind why crepes are an essential dish for her family.
Several of Lyle’s family members immigrated to Louisiana from Paris in the early 1900s, including her grandmother, Jackie Richard, who was an infant at the time. Upon arrival, the family put down roots in Rayne.
They brought many French customs along with them, and Lyle’s family has managed to keep many of those traditions alive for more than a century — a notable one being the making of crepes every year on Feb. 2.
In the United States, the day is known as Groundhog Day, but in France, it’s “La Chandeleur” — which in English is translated to Candlemas 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 stand in the cold waiting for a groundhog to make an appearance, the French crepe holiday dates back to the fifth century and is a mashup of traditions — including the Catholic holiday and a harvest celebration. The day is considered to be very superstitious in France and is said to serve as a ritual of enticing good luck throughout the year, similar to the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and cabbage on New Year’s Day.
Growing up, every Groundhog Day, Lyle’s family celebrated the holiday at her grandmother’s home in Lafayette. As long as her grandmother was alive, she hosted the holiday celebration.
Everyone attended as they gathered around the kitchen for a collective crepe-making experience. Though Lyle began preparing crepes at 8 years old, surrounded by family, it wasn’t until she was away at college that she celebrated the occasion for the first time on her own.
“It is the firmest tradition in my family,” Lyle said.
It is celebrated without hesitation. Lyle would forgo black-eyed peas before she would go without crepes on Groundhog Day.
A native of 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 has shared her family’s crepes tradition and experience with her PASA staff and interns.
Pans were laid atop the gas-burning stove as the batter rested beside it. Lyle’s pans are smaller than a modern-day crepe pan and are made of aluminum. The worn pans hearken back to an earlier time and tell the story of a family gathering to celebrate the tradition brought from France.
In Lyle’s kitchen, her crepe recipe is in a cookbook put together by her aunt Phyllis Richard. The page shows the wear of the years of having the cookbook open near the batter. 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 were handmade and covered in fabric as her aunt was a seamstress, and then an updated version came later.
Lyle clicked the stove burner clicked and went to work, making the process look effortless. As the aroma of brown butter permeated the kitchen, she filled me in with more details of the process.
Mixing the crepes could be a chore. So as not to have a lumpy batter, they began incorporating the flour, salt and eggs in a blender, creating a smooth mixture.
“Once blended, refrigerate for a few hours to let the gluten develop, making a thick batter,” Lyle said.
Lyle has the flipping of crepes down to a science.
When she hears the sizzling of the pan and the edges start to curl, it’s time. Before flipping the crepe, she shook the pan gently to be sure the crepe wasn’t stuck.
Then, she flipped it with the pan in hand. The crepe landed gracefully. Somehow, she simultaneously managed several pans — and no crepe was burned, lost to falling on the floor or broke apart.
I asked if she ever flips crepes with a spatula.
“What’s the point if you can do it like this?” she said.
I laughed and immediately wanted to give it a go myself.
Once I lifted the pan and ensured the crepe was loose on the first try, I was surprised it flipped like it was supposed to. Beginner’s luck!
The second time did not go as well. It took several tries, and finally, I had to accept the failure to flip. Still, I was grateful for the experience and her patience during my attempts.
For many years, only granulated sugar was used inside the crepe before rolling it up to enjoy. Nowadays, more modern versions of fillings exist, such as the much beloved Nutella. As much as Lyle loves Nutella, she said, “Sprinkled sugar inside crepes is my favorite because it reminds me of my grandmother.”
Lyle’s children continue the family tradition of celebrating Groundhog Day by making homemade crepes with their growing families.
Feb. 2 is not just another dreary winter day for Lyle and her family — and she encourages others to join the fun.
Makes 40 crepes. Recipe is by Jackie Richard.
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup cold milk
4 tablespoon butter, melted
1 cup cold water
Salad oil or butter (used to coat the pan)
1. Combine flour, salt, and eggs; blend well.
2. Blend in milk, water and butter. Mix well.
3. Refrigerate batter for at least two hours, allowing the flour particles to swell and soften so the crepes are light in texture.
4. Brush bottom of a 6-inch or 7-inch crepe pan lightly with salad oil or butter; heat pan over medium heat until hot but not smoking.
5. Pour in a scant ¼-cup of batter and quickly tilt pan in all directions run the batter all over the bottom of the pan.
6. Let cook for about 1 minute and turn crepe onto the other side. Cook until the side is spotty brown.
Crepes can be frozen between waxed paper. Take out, thaw and use for desserts.
If you are going to eat the crepes like Lyle’s Grandma Richard, roll them on Groundhog Day and use butter instead of oil. Lyle also recommends mixing the batter in a blender.