Lenten Fast Enriches Russian Easter Feast

Many Orthodox families, now living in the US, will hold traditional celebrations - from cooking to decorating to churchgoing

NATALIE GANSON and her family will soon be setting an Easter table to reflect their native Russian culture.

The Roslindale, Mass. resident, whose parents emigrated from Europe to the United States after World War II, says her two older brothers and their children will be gathering at their mother's nearby home for a traditional Easter dinner, as they have for many years. "My mother still does all the cooking," she says.

Ms. Ganson, whose broad, wide cheekbones give her a classically Russian look, animates her slightly accented speech with emphatic hand gestures.

She explains that her grandparents left Russia in the early 1920s after the Russian Revolution of 1917. They first emigrated to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where they joined a large Russian community, and where Ganson's parents met and married.

The family later moved to Germany, New York, and then to Maine where her father worked as a carpenter and where Natalie was born.

In Maine, her family lived in a tightly knit Russian community, and Natalie spoke Russian as her first language. Even today, her answering machine is geared for both cultures: an English message followed by Russian - complete with instructions on how to send a fax.

"My mother still cooks very Russian," says Ganson. And Easter is no exception for her family: "Two very traditional things everybody has are the kulich, which is an Easter cake, and paskha, made of farmer's cheese."

The sweet, bread-like kulich is "always made in a form - tall, like a tower - and the top is decorated with a sugar glaze and candied fruit. Frequently, the letters `XB,' (meaning Khristos voskres - `Christ is risen,' in English) are arranged in raisins on top," Ganson explains. The dough is baked in a round pot or large can, lined with parchment paper.

Paskha, a cheese dessert served on Easter, is actually the Russian word for Easter. There are as many variations of the paskha recipe as there are families, says Ganson.

"Basically, the main ingredients are farmer's cheese, butter, eggs, and sugar. Then you can embellish that as much as you want - raisins, nuts, chocolate. You can make either a fresh, cooked, or baked paskha."

The paskha is poured into a wooden pyramid-shaped mold, usually four-sided. Ganson remembers her grandparents' molds: "The inside of these wooden molds would be carved. The simplest thing would just be a cross on one side and the `XB' on the other side. Others would have any type of design on them: grapes or fruits or flowers." This pattern then would be pressed into the paskha.

The Easter meal consists of rich foods, enjoyed after seven weeks of strict fasting during Russian Orthodox Lent, when all meats, dairy foods, and eggs are prohibited. The table is set with baked ham and sausages, as well as the kulich and paskha, both laden with butter, eggs, and sugar.

Ganson remembers: "The way Easter worked for most Russians is on Saturday, all the cooking would be done, and the decorating - a fresh tablecloth, the eggs would be put on the table.

The Easter service started at midnight, so in the afternoon everybody went to bed, and we'd later get up, and get dressed, and go to church."

This year, Ganson and her family will be attending Mass at the Russian Orthodox Church of Epiphany in her hometown.

Before the two-hour service, the priest blesses the kulich and paskha brought to the church. After the Mass, families return home to share their traditional meal, often celebrating well into the night.

In mid-afternoon the next day, another Russian Orthodox tradition is practiced: visiting nearby friends and relatives. "The women traditionally stay at home and entertain whoever comes, and the men of the family go calling. The table would always be well-set with meat, paskha, kulich, ham, sausages."

In "Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets' A Gift to Young Housewives," (translated and introduced by Joyce Toomre, Indiana University Press, 1992,) a traditional Easter menu of the late 1880s is described: "Paskha, Kulich, Babas, Mazurkas, Pljatski, Tortes, Decorated eggs, Lamb made from butter, Boar's head, Baked ham, Cold roast hare, Roast veal, Wood Grouse...." Fruit and vegetables were mainly absent from the Easter menu, having been readily eaten during the Great Lenten Fast.

Ms. Toomre writes, "The opposite side of fasting, of course, is feasting. The meaning of each is intensified by the existence of the other. The apex of the Russian ecclesiastical calendar was the progression from Butter Week, or Carnival [the week before Lent], through the Great Lenten Fast to the joyous celebration of Easter."

Ganson says that the fasting progresses in stages. The first, Maslenitsa (also known as "Butter Week" or "Carnival"), is an opportunity to enjoy blini, a kind of yeast-leavened pancake, smothered with sour cream, herring, or caviar.

That week, similar to Mardi Gras, is traditionally a time for parties, costumes, and celebration.

Then, during Lent, the devout follow a strict diet until Easter when the fast is broken. For a typical Lenten meal, Ganson says "Russian people like to eat buckwheat - kasha [a porridge] with either fried onions or mushrooms, and kotletki [fried patties] made with potatoes."

Remembering stories her grandparents told from their childhoods, she remarks, "Of course, it was a little different than we celebrate here, in the sense that it was the whole country that celebrated at the same time, in the same tradition. Here we're sort of isolated - strictly family, or friends."

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