Ah, the pancake breakfast. A great Lion tradition filled with all the things Lions love: filling bellies, seeing friendly faces, and raising money for a good cause.

Illustration of a stack of pancakes falling onto a plate.Pancakes have been around since at least 600 B.C. And pancakes breakfasts – complete with towering stacks of the fluffy cakes and the general merriment we see at most Lions events – became a tradition sometime around 1100 A.D., when folks began cooking them in large quantities to use up stores of milk, butter, and eggs before Lent.

While we don’t really know when the first Lion pancake breakfast was held, it’s safe to say that Lions have been cooking up this ancient food and serving it fine for at least 70 years.

But just as Lions have continued to innovate their service, so have they innovated their palates. Over the decades Lions have become quite diverse in the foods they cook and serve, ranging from the quaint and homey (spaghetti dinners, anyone?) to the downright adventurous (hint: it has the word “rat” in it).

Yes, from soup (with the Pekin Lions in Illinois) to nuts (from the Olathe Noon Lions in Kansas) North American Lions are no longer content to stick to the usual fare. Instead, they’re feeding their communities feasts of a diverse array of foods. All in the name of service.

You’re Gonna Eat What?

As it turns out, although Lions are known for celebrating traditions, when it comes to food, there’s nothing they love more than the nontraditional.

One of the more eccentric fares comes from the Danville, Ohio, Lions who host their popular raccoon dinner each February. Diners come from all over the U.S. and Canada to be among the hundreds who enjoy the unusual dish. It comes with mashed potatoes, raccoon gravy, homemade cornbread, mixed vegetables, and cake. Some diners are drawn by curiosity, others by fond memories of eating it as a child.

Although it wasn’t uncommon for people to cook raccoon in the first half of the 20th century, the tradition in Danville began in 1944, when one of the Lions held a raccoon dinner in his basement. Thirty diners attended that night and the crowd grew from there. Today, as many as 500 people will stand in line waiting for their annual taste of what folks say is a cross between dark turkey meat and roast beef. Area hunters sell the pelts and donate the meat, and all the money earned goes back into the community. Last year’s proceeds helped a young man who is fighting cancer.

Danville Lions aren’t the only ones to put their hunting trophies on the plate though. Harsens Island Lions in Michigan hold an annual Muskrat Dinner that sells out every year even though, as one diner assures, it definitely does not taste like chicken.

Raccoon and muskrat may require a more adventurous palate, but there’s always a crowd looking for wild game. In Pennsylvania, the Trumbauersville Lions Club hosts 300 people for its annual Game Dinner where they serve venison, steak, sausage, pheasant, and more. More than 40 years after it started, the simple meal that began as one hunter cooking for a few friends has become a feast that raises more than US$10,000 for charity. The dinner chairman says it’s nearly impossible to score a ticket — so much so that people with “season tickets” bequeath them to their heirs.

Taking It To Go

But it isn’t just about the sit-down dinner. Many Lions take their goods to the people, and the trick is in finding just the right place to sell them.

Abington Lions in Massachusetts have discovered that people waiting in line to vote are a prime captive audience. They’ve established such a presence at the local polling place that folks wonder if they’ve ever voted without stopping for a hot dog cooked and sold on-site by Lions. Word has it that if they don’t show up for an election, town members worry that something has happened and call to check on them.

While hot dogs and other sausages are always popular, some clubs are turning it up a notch.

For more than three decades Leavenworth Lions in Washington have roasted chestnuts for visitors to eat as they stroll the annual Christmas Lighting Festival, helping add a toasty memory to the magical night. Chino Valley Lions Club in California sells soft serve ice cream, cones, floats, and sundaes from a trailer they park at city and county events.

A World of Flavors

North American food is as much a melting pot as its population, and the food Lions serve is beginning to reflect that. Many clubs are opting to whip up dishes you might expect to eat during a night on the town, not at your local Lions club, proving Lions are more than sausage and gravy.

Phoenix Asian American Lions partner with their Leo and Cub clubs to serve a potluck of traditional foods from their cultural heritage, including fried fish, whole fried pork, chicken curry, beef stew, rice, pancit, egg rolls, and more.

And in Seattle, the First Hill Club simmers meat and vegetables in a shallow iron pot for their Sukiyaki fundraiser, which brings in people from all around the city.

Foodies, Rejoice

Turns out, when it comes to food, Lions are much more than pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners (though we’ll never turn down a ticket to either one of those classic feasts). To be a member of a Lions club is to be a member of the most diverse service organization on Earth. And now, even if you can’t travel far, you can still taste some of that diversity in the dishes cooked and served by your local Lions club.