Monday, April 25, 2011

An American Pascha Basket

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.


Steve Robinson said...

Buttermilk pie. Oh yeah! The rest of humanity has no idea what it is missing.

Reader John said...

Indiana has a pie, "sugar cream," that in my opinion has little to commend it. Can't say I've ever had buttermilk pie.
In our parish, my son's Jambalaya has become a perennial hit, but I can't claim any great Hoosier nexus.

elizabeth said...

recipe for butter milk pie please! :)

I made or tried to make a Ukrainian casserole for Pascha - eggs, scalded milk, butter, egg noodles, raisins, sugar, cinnamon; I liked it but I think I used noodles that were too big so it did not look that nice... but try and try again!

My own tradition is making cookies to give out since my 'Ukrainian Mother' makes my Pascha (bread) for my basket... :) and I had a bottle of red wine, chocolate ( :) ), dutch cheese (Gouda), brie (for my Friday Pascha party) and boiled eggs...

My church is a mix of ethnic and coverts with more ethnic than coverts so lots of real baskets there, not like mine but that's okay. I'm young and at least I can make a good chocolate chip cookie! The kids loved it... :)

Anonymous said...

I made a hap-hazard basket last year to "play along". This year I didn't get to it (in fact, there were only two baskets at our parish and both were convert-crazy-wonderful).

An elderly Bulgarian woman taught me my egg grasping technique and I took out four people in a row.

We definitely had our liveliest celebration we've had in years though. I'm not sure what was different this year. Many more stayed afterwards. And while we are still morning the loss of our beloved Father Deacon Michael, just 10 days ago, there were far more comments like, "Christ did not ask him to finish Lent and took Him straight to Pascha" than anything else.

My boy had his first experience (age 8). He objected to the lack of sleep (funny, he never wants to go to bed at night) but I caught him really enjoying himself quite often. Perhaps we should make a tradition of holding Nocturne in our home. :)

Now THAT would be convert-crazy-wonderful-perhaps-stupid.

Milton T. Burton said...

This was a marvelous post, one beautifully written as well. The only part of your basket I probably wouldn't relish is the salami. I just ain't a salami guy. A nice thick slice of liverwurst between two slices of that bread with plenty of Helman's... I could go for that!

Steve Robinson said...

Milton, You and I need to do lunch. I LOVE liverwurst and mayo.

Terry (John) said...

Okay, Elizabeth--here's the buttermilk pie recipe:

1. Cream together a softened stick of butter and 2 cups of sugar.

2. Add 3 rounded Tbsp. flour and 3 eggs, beaten, to the mixture and beat well.

3. Stir in 1 cup of buttermilk, 1 tsp. of vanilla and a dash of nutmeg.

4. Bake 45 to 50 minutes at 350 degrees (until the middle doesn't jiggle.)

That's it!

Now for the easy pie crust:

1. Melt 1 stick of butter in microwave.

2. Add 1 cup of flour and 2 Tbsp. of powdered sugar.

3. Mix well and form ball.

4. While ball is still warm, press into pie plate and press out crust.

Once you make this pie crust, you will never buy another ready-made pie crust again.

The pie recipe is supposedly for a 9 inch pie plate, but 1 recipe usually makes 2 pies in the smaller pie plates that are so common.

Let me know how it turns out.

Andrea Elizabeth said...

Awesome. Thanks for sharing.

Ingemar said...

I am sick of the implicit "I'm sorry for being a dumb white American" bullshit of every convert Orthodoxy blog out there. (BTW I'm SEAsian). If you really wanted to be like real ethnic Orthodox you could start by only attending church once a year, ending most of your pregnancies in abortion and butchering Albanians.

Terry (John) said...

You have such a way with words. Now go away.

Ecgbert said...

Georgian red wine is the best. Kindzmarauli is my favourite followed by kvanchkara. All I could find last week in a big bottle was akhasheni.

Anonymous said...

I adore buttermilk pie! My mother added coconut to hers and so do I. Gives it a bit of chewiness and that wonderfully yummy, nutty flavor. Would love to have dived into your Easter basket - got to get me some of those Natchitoches meat pies! Christ is risen!

John said...

Hi John, would you provide the bread recipe, please? Is it similar to hallah bread? I have been trying to make that and would like to try yours.

Terry (John) said...

Young fogey,
I get mine from Potomac Wines & Spirits, 3100 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 2007;; They always have a good selection of Georgian wines.

Terry (John) said...

I'll email you the recipe--it's a bit involved.

Milton T. Burton said...

Ingemar, who did you say buggers Elbonians?

Unknown said...

Our parish had more baskets than I have ever seen. The altar boys were almost tripping over them. We have a really diverse parish with about 30% converts along with Arabs, Greeks, Slavs, Ethiopians, Indians, etc. The Slavs probably outdo everyone, but I was impressed with the makeup of everyone's. I saw wine, vodka, Guinness, red eggs, and all kinds of prepared meats and specialty cheeses. Someone had the butter shaped like a lamp. Maybe I will take a picture next year. If I had seen buttermilk pie, I would have made a point of buddying up after liturgy.

Christ is Risen!

PRKpirate said...

Happy Easter, mate.
He is risen.

DebD said...

I was coming in here to comment and ask for the buttermilk pie, but see that someone has beaten me to it. Thanks! It sounds yummy. Our traditional Pascha basket fare is a bit more eclectic. I noticed this year that one family brought a wicker laundry basket and I'm thinking, with 5 kids in toe, that's a fab. idea I'll probably steal it for next Pascha.

The Singular Observer said...

Now the buttermilk pie is really interesting, because it reminds me of that most tradtional of Afrikaner deserts, Melktert (translated - milk tart):

But please don't use margarine, as that recipe suggests! While butter is proof that God loves us, margarine is proof that the devil is still active...