Christ is Risen!
Living my life within a liturgical year is still fresh and new to me, this my 6th Orthodox Pascha. And I suppose I enjoy the feast in the hall afterwards as much as anyone. I find that after 4 years of doing this, our mission is falling into its own rhythm, with small traditions taking shape.
American convert Orthodox remain a self-conscious and self-absorbed bunch--at least we of the online variety, where we often fret about many things, become angst-ridden, and issue dire prognostications about the impossibility of American converts ever really becoming Orthodox (it's all hopeless play-acting, don't you know, etc. etc. etc.) And I'll be the first to admit, we have a ways to go. We will know we will have arrived once we stop thinking and talking about it so dang much.
With the ethnic Orthodox, the preparation of a Pascha basket was no haphazard accumulation of meat, cheese and egg dishes. Every item was prepared in a way to symbolize, in some manner, a truth of the Resurrection. Well, we American converts are not there yet. From my study of Church history, it seems apparent that Orthodoxy takes a long time to gel with a particular culture. Before discounting where we are now, I would suggest checking back in 200 years, to see if we've made any progress or not. That is not a particularly long span in Orthodox time.
The preparation of my own Pascha basket was not carefully planned-out, to be sure. And yet, I found the contents interesting--containing something of a nod to the older traditions, but incorporating foods of my native South, as well. The contents (following) may say as much as anything about the adaptability of an Orthodox ethos in this strange clime.
1. Georgian wine, specifically Khvanchkara. The Georgians claim they invented wine--and I won't argue the point with them. I am not a wine connoisseur, but simply enjoy a smooth, modestly-priced red wine that goes down well with a meal. Khavanchkara is a winner on all three counts, and each year I make new disciples. Having the Khvanchkara at our post-Pascha feast has now become a tradition at our mission. In the weeks leading up, different ones will inquire whether I have ordered the Georgian wine yet. There's a liquor store in D.C. that has the American distributorship, I suppose. I send them an email, and in a few days time, a case of this wonderful stuff arrives at my door.
2. Tsoureki. This is Greek Pascha bread. The recipe, attached to an email I received from an Orthodox friend, stated that it dated back to "Byzantine times." Truth be told, I am something of a Byzantine nut. Attach the word to most anything, and I'm a buyer. If Detroit came out with a new sports car called the "Byzantine," I would somehow convince myself that I needed one. This love of Byzantine history is separate and apart from my being Orthodox--in fact, it came first. Perhaps someday I may tell of my humiliating episode with the "Byzantine" coins at the archaeological site in Syria. Maybe. But back to the bread--once the recipe mentioned the B-word, I knew I had to give it a try. The theological symbolism is not hard to figure out in this bread, with the yeast "rising again," the eggs, and each loaf consisting of 3 intertwined braids. But I also see why it is generally baked only once a year. The process takes the better part of a day, as well as taking-over the entire kitchen. The two loaves could have fed a small Byzantine city through an extended siege. To add another Orthodox element, I stirred the mixture with the hand-carved wooden spoon I picked up at a stall right outside the Bachkovo Monastery in Bulgaria. But I chose not to put the decorative dyed eggs atop the bread. My Protestant wife kept walking through--not a little skeptical of the whole thing and a bit alarmed at the usurpation of her kitchen--with barbed questions as to why I was doing this or that, and why didn't I do it this other way, etc. I figured putting the eggs atop the bread would have exceeded her level of allowable foolishness. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the Greek gentleman sitting next to me at the feast said that I got the taste just right.
3. Salami and cheese. Our city has a new frou-frou grocery store determined to out-do Whole Foods at that game. The establishment is certainly impressive, but perhaps not the place for everyday shopping and everyday budgets. But I did spring for a bit of higher-grade salami. The butcher with the fake Italian accent tried to sell me on the really expensive stuff, assuring me that it would "melt in my mouth." I did not say it, but I didn't want it to melt in my mouth. I wanted to chew it up. Anyway, I settled for salami I could afford. I chose a Gouda cheese to go with, but one that was made in Granbury, Texas.
4. Natchitoches meat pies. I think every agrarian culture develops some variation of a meat pie. In this part of the South, the meat pies became identified with this old French town on the Cane River. Meat pies and hash browns are my favorite Saturday breakfast, so I always include some to break the fast after Pascha.
5. Buttermilk pie. This is a Southern staple that tastes oh so much better than it sounds. I make the pie and the crust from scratch, and it is one of the easiest pies to throw together. My buttermilk pies have come to be expected at these gatherings.
6. Red-dyed eggs. I was the logical one to supply the dyed eggs this year, as my chickens and guinea hens are now laying big-time. This turned into more trouble than I thought, as I discovered at this late date that I really do not know how to boil an egg properly. At age 56, I can't recall ever having done it before. But by the last batch, I about had it down. For the egg-cracking game, those in the know would reach for the smaller guinea eggs, whose shells are much harder than the chicken eggs.