Many traditional holiday foods and activities have deep historical and religious significance that sometimes gets forgotten. Below is a brief history lesson on some common traditions -- and also several recipes -- courtesy of today's "Fresh Fridays" newsletter from our friends at the Mediterranean Foods Alliance. I invite you to read, enjoy, and pass on to the young people and children with whom you celebrate; and I hope it helps to make this year's Passover or Easter celebration more meaningful and memorable for you and your family.
Spring is here! It's time to celebrate warmer weather and new growth, and for some of us, our faith. Today is Good Friday and Passover begins tonight at sundown, plus Easter Sunday is April 5th. These celebrations coincide with ancient springtime celebrations, honoring the first harvest in ancient Palestine.
Food is a significant part of these celebrations, both for its religious symbolism and because historically, a greater variety of foods began to be available this time of year after a long winter. Although religious feasts vary across the Mediterranean and around the world, four foods act as a common thread between them: grains, eggs, fish and lamb. Of course, everyone can savor these foods in dishes that originated on Easter and Passover tables.
In the ancient Mediterranean, spring harvest was the most important harvest because grains like wheat and barley became available. For this reason, a variety of traditional intricately woven breads and sweet breads (see Hot Cross Buns recipe below) are popular around Easter. Many traditional Easter desserts contain extra grains to take advantage of the abundant crop.
For those who celebrate Passover, consumption of chametz, or leavened bread containing any of "the five major grains" - wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt (a type of wheat) - is forbidden. Strict followers rid their entire house of all traces of chametz. This sacrifice commemorates the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt, who didn't have time to let their bread rise because they left in such a hurry. Rising bread can also symbolize pride, and swearing off it is a way for Jews to show their humility in the presence of God. It's a challenging time to cook with this limitation, but traditional Passover dishes such as matzah balls, kugel, latkes, and salmon are delicious alternatives.
Many of us are familiar with egg hunts, decorated eggs, and chocolate eggs around this time of year. Eggs are a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings - the embodiment of spring, the freedom of the Israelites, and the resurrection of Christ. During the Seder feast on the first two nights of Passover, roasted eggs (betza) are served as a sacrificial offering to God. Traditional Easter foods with eggs range from frittatas on Easter morning in Italy to Greek braided bread with dyed red eggs on top to represent Christ's blood.
During Lent, the 40-day period before Easter Sunday, people of some Christian traditions refrain from eating meat and poultry on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) and all Fridays. Fish is the substitute protein of choice - hence the slew of spring fish recipes. In the Mediterranean, where fresh fish and time-honored recipes are in no short supply, going without meat doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice at all.
Fish is also a popular Passover food. Gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish fish patty, is typically associated with this time of year, but there are a variety of dishes out there. Check out our Passover and Easter fish dish below!
Before the modern convenience of refrigeration, most large animals were slaughtered in the fall so that the meat had less chance of spoiling during the colder months. At the end of the winter, lambs were often the first available sources of fresh meat. Cured ham is popular in the U.S. for a similar reason - it was the only meat that made it through the winter.
For Jews, roasted lamb bone served during the Seder mimics the sacrifice of a lamb by the Jewish slaves on the eve of their Exodus from Egypt. Lamb is a symbol of religious freedom dating back to the first celebration of Passover in 1300 B.C. Jews who converted to Christianity later on carried the tradition of serving lamb with them.
Happy Passover, happy Easter, and happy spring to all! Read on for delicious recipes to celebrate the season.
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