For 10 days every July, the sense of community in Calgary is palpable thanks to the Calgary Stampede, a.k.a. the “Greatest Show on Earth.” During that time, Calgary transforms into a special place where everyone comes together under one common purpose, in a way that few places in the world can replicate. And at the heart of it all is the most memorable of meals, the most beautiful of brunch banquets — the Stampede pancake breakfast.
Stampede breakfasts are a time-honoured tradition and how Calgarians show the western hospitality they’re famous for. Music plays, griddles line the streets and a hearty breakfast — usually consisting of pancakes, sausage and bacon (sometimes more if you’re lucky) — is served to anyone who happens to mosey on by, free of charge.
If you’re new to Calgary, the idea of free pancakes being handed out in the streets may seem unusual, but it’s been an integral part of the Stampede identity almost since the event began. And now, as we hit the 100th anniversary of Stampede pancake breakfasts in 2023, they’re as popular as they’ve ever been.
But why do Calgarians even gather around the griddle in the first place?
The story of pancake breakfasts is deeply interlocked with the introduction of another popular Stampede tradition, the chuckwagon races (which also happen to be celebrating their centennial birthday this year). In 1923, the Calgary Stampede was beginning to change into the festival we know today — prior to this year, the Stampede Exhibition and rodeo events were still separate entities, and chuckwagon racing didn’t take place at all.
“[Stampede founder] Guy Weadick was looking for new, exciting and fun things to do for this [Stampede], like ‘let’s kick this one off with a bang,’” says Cassandra Cummings, Historical Specialist at the Calgary Stampede and self-proclaimed “Historian of Pancakes.”
“So, the chuckwagon races were born — no one really knows where the idea came from exactly, but one of those first chuckwagon drivers was Jack Morton.”
While Jack Morton wasn’t a great racer, he’s remembered nonetheless for his chuckwagon outfit’s “howling, whooping, rip-snorting” stampede down Stephen Avenue (as reported by a 1923 edition of the Calgary Daily Herald), the two badgers he carried with him as pets and the pancakes he flipped after the races. The chuckwagons used to compete in those early races were the same ones used to travel to Calgary and were outfitted to travel long distances, including everything needed to sling pancakes for a crowd.
Today, Morton is credited with being the creator of the Stampede breakfast, and even shows up in a children’s book, Flip Flop Flapjack, written by his granddaughter Brenda Joyce Leary about this inaugural pancake breakfast.
“[Morton] took the cooks, the stoves and the wagons downtown and just started serving pancakes to people,” says Cummings. She notes that, contrary to popular belief, 1923 Calgary was already a bustling and urban city full of oil money and people in European fashion, not cowboy hats and chaps. The exception, of course, was during Stampede.
“So this cowboy dress up has existed since the beginning, but so has this community spirit of pancakes,” says Cummings.
According to the Calgary Daily Herald, Morton’s pancakes brought up feelings of “the good old days” for breakfast attendees, and brought people together under one common, buttery-sweet purpose like the breakfasts still do today.
Eventually, more wagons joined in, and the pancake breakfast tradition was born. Today, the Stampede Caravan Committee — the volunteer-run organization responsible for the Stampede-branded breakfasts — pumps out 200,000 pancakes yearly, two tonnes of sausage and serves enough maple syrup to fill a seven-person hot tub. That’s not even counting the seemingly limitless number of other free breakfasts happening in communities and businesses around the city.
Over the years since the 1950s, pancake breakfast options grew as businesses, politicians and charities got involved in hosting breakfasts. Not only did store owners see the opportunity to attract customers to their businesses, but charities saw the chance to reach out to the community during these pancake forums as well.
Today, one of the biggest charity breakfasts in the city is the Pink Pancake Breakfast, taking place this year on July 12 at Southcentre Mall in support of the Canadian Cancer Society. The Pink Pancake Breakfast served more than 10,000 people in 2022 and has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research since it started. The breakfast is an opportunity to connect with the community, raise awareness and register to participate in the CIBC Run for the Cure that takes place in the fall.
“Of course we take donations, but Stampede is all about bringing us together, celebrating our western spirit,” says Alexandra Velosa, Marketing Manager at Southcentre Mall. “When we gather for food, it’s like you gather to be in the community. We have found the soul of the mall is community, so inviting everyone back to support an important cause means a lot.”
That sense of community is also at the heart of events like the Ismaili Muslim Stampede Breakfast, which weaves Stampede heritage with cultural elements that reflect Calgary’s diverse population. Now in its 26th year with more than 5,000 people attending annually, this pancake breakfast serves not only pancakes, but traditional cultural dishes, as well.
“Last year, we had bharazi, which is this East African stew with pigeon peas and coconut, which happens to go really well with pancakes,” says Alisha Visanji, a member of the Ismaili Council for the Prairies, the organization that runs the breakfast (along with the Centre for Newcomers in 2023). “We’ve been able to make it really pluralistic — celebrating the Stampede culture, but also traditions in our community.”
“The Stampede story has kind of become our story, and sharing our culture has become part of our Stampede. On the years where Stampede coincides with our own religious holidays, we’ve been able to merge them together,” Visanji says, referring to events like StampEid, in recognition of the holiday Eid al-Adha in 2022, or Stampede Break-the-Fast during Ramadan, which was held at night to observe fasting during the Muslim holy month.
Ultimately, it’s clear that throughout its hundred year history, the pancake breakfast has become a symbol for the strong community and show of hospitality here in Calgary. So when you’re heading to a pancake breakfast this year, you may want to bring some candles to celebrate the incredible milestone of this iconic Stampede tradition.
[Note: This story previously stated that the first photo was taken in 1999. It has been updated to show that it was taken in the 1970s.]