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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Easter Food Traditions

Like most holidays, Easter is filled with family traditions--most of them centered on food.  Probably more than most holiday food traditions, however, food associated with Easter is steeped in symbolism and ancient roots.

This holiday may be the most sacred day for Christians, but many Easter traditions come from pre-Christian pagan cultures.  In fact, the word Easter comes from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility and springtime.  So it's not all that surprising that the fertile rabbit later became a symbol of Easter.

But we're here to talk about food. 

And probably the most long-standing Easter food is lamb.  The lamb holds a starring role in the Passover story where the Israelites were ordered to kill a lamb, paint above their door with the blood and eat it for their meal.  The blood notified the "Angel of Death" to pass over their home, thus saving them from destruction.  As some ancient Jews converted to Christianity, they brought their tradition of the sacrificial lamb with them--representing Christ as the Lamb of God.  Tradition has it that the devil can take the form of any animal except the lamb, because of it's religious significance.

In our country, lamb isn't as popular as ham.  Even this is not by chance.  In many ancient cultures, the pig was known as a symbol of good luck and prosperity.  That's why we put money in piggy banks and eat pork for the new year (pigs push forward as they forage as we should do into the new year).  Ham became popular for Easter (instead of fresh pork) because the animals were usually slaughtered in the fall and their meat was cured to last the winter.  So by the time Easter rolled around, the ham was ready to eat. 

Ask most people around the world, though, what food they think of in relation to Easter and they'll say the egg.  The egg has been a symbol of new birth from ancient times when many believed that the world was formed from an egg.  Eggs are part of the traditional Jewish seder meal and later, many saw the empty shell of a cracked egg as representing the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter.  In Medieval times (and in some cultures still today), eggs were prohibited during the Lenten season.  Eggs were boiled or preserved in some other way and finally eaten on Easter.

The tradition of decorating eggs goes back thousands of years.  Ancient Egyptians and Persians decorated eggs (ostrich for the Egyptians) and given as gifts as a symbol of new life.  Decorating eggs for Easter seems to have started in 1290, when Edward I of England (known as Longshanks) ordered 450 hard-cooked eggs to be covered with gold leaf and given as Easter gifts. 

Egg decorating has different styles in various parts of the world.  Greek and Slavic traditions dye the eggs deep red to represent the blood of Christ.  Those in Poland, Russia, Ukraine and other countries in that part of the world take to decorating their eggs in as fancy a way as they can--full of symbols, holy pictures and intricate designs.  Of course, in the 19th Century, the Russian court jeweler named Faberge', used precious stones, gold and more to create egg-shaped treasures. 

Even the famous egg rolling on the White House lawn has its roots in an ancient game, where the rolling egg represents the stone rolling from Jesus' grave.  Games similar to this are still played in many parts of the world.

If you haven't cooked your eggs yet, give this method a try.  It gives you perfect hard-cooked eggs every time.

Make as many eggs as you wish, as long as they are in 1 layer in the bottom of the pan and can be covered with 1 inch of water.
  1. Place the eggs in a pan, cover with 1 inch of water and bring to a boil over high heat.  Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, fill a bowl with cold water and a tray or two of ice.
  2. Transfer the eggs to the ice bath with a slotted spoon and let sit for 5 minutes.  Then they'll be ready to decorate or eat.

So as you enjoy your Easter meal with family and friends, think about how you are part of that long line through the generations celebrating this most holy day in much the same way!

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