I had originally written the following story for my radio show ‘2000 & Counting’.
In 2007 it was published in 'A/cross sections : new Manitoba writing', which was edited by Katharine Bitney and Andris Taskans, and published by the Manitoba Writers Guild.
The book is still in the Winnipeg library system, adult nonfiction section. Check it out. You'll find lots of stories and poems by other Manitoba writers in it.
Why am I always writing about food?
A Traditional Family Easter by Margaret Ullrich
I made a loaf of soda bread to serve with the corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t know why I did it. I’m Maltese. My husband is German/Swedish. Not a single Irish person among our ancestors. Then, on March nineteenth, I made a lasagna and cream puffs for St. Joseph. I’d be twenty pounds lighter if I just ignored holidays.
Yeah, right, like that’ll ever happen.
I’m a sucker for holiday traditions. And, just like Christmas, Lent and Easter are loaded with holiday traditions. Lent is the time to really clean the house. Ah, spring cleaning. Scrub and wax the floors, wash the windows and launder the curtains. Everything from cellar to attic is glowing. After being sealed in tighter than a drum all winter who could argue with giving the house a good cleaning?
Lent is also a time to cut back on the calories. Let’s be honest. Who doesn’t want to drop the pounds gained during December? Between the fasting and the exercise we get from cleaning house, we’re almost able to fit into the clothes we wore before Christmas. Alleluia!! Religion can be good for the body as well as the soul.
And then there’s Easter, when Christians celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. We attend church in new outfits. Little boys in little suits and little girls in fluffy dresses and shiny white patent leather shoes make families look like Hallmark cards.
Easter has more customs than the Bunny has eggs. A popular tradition is to gather together and share a feast. Over the centuries women have made this a glorious occasion with beautifully decorated eggs, colourful coffee cakes and traditional breads.
According to tradition, an angel appeared to Mary to tell her that Jesus would arise on Easter. To show her joy, Mary baked bread to share with her friends. And to make the loaf more special, she put an egg, a symbol of life, on the top. Now, I have to admit I don’t know what I’d do if someone told me that a recently deceased relative was rising from the dead. I guess baking bread is as good a thing to do as any. The only problem is that over the past two millennia something got lost in translation as that bread recipe went from country to country.
And that’s when Easter went to hell in a bread basket.
During my earliest years in Corona, a small town in Queens, New York, Easter was Italian. Palm Sunday was the Day of the Olive. Small blessed olive branches were offered as tokens of peacemaking. For Easter breakfast we had Colomba di Pasqua. Colomba is bread shaped to look like a dove, the symbol of peace, and covered with almond paste and almonds. An Italian Easter dinner also had traditions. First we had manicotti. That was followed by a roasted whole baby lamb with a mixed salad, sauteed spinach and roasted artichokes. For dessert there were cream tarts, cookies, spumoni, nuts and roasted chestnuts. The adults had coffee.
Then my parents moved to College Point, another small town in Queens, which had been settled by Irish and German families. They had their own Easter customs. Since Easter was not as commercial as Christmas, no one noticed when we followed our own customs.
When I was seven I had to follow what Ma told me were the Church’s rules during Lent. I ate kwarezimal, an almond cookie that was topped with honey and chopped pistachio nuts. Ma said we could eat it during Lent because it didn’t have any fat or eggs. For Maundy Thursday Ma baked bread in the form of a ring. Its top was crusted with sesame seeds and pierced with roasted almonds. Our Easter dinner menu was the same as it had been in Corona. But, instead of making a Colomba di Pasqua, Ma baked a figolli, a Maltese sweet bread with a marzipan filling.
A figolli was harder to make than a colomba. The dough was rolled about one centimeter thick. Then Ma cut the dough into pairs of figolla with a figolla cutter. They looked like a large letter J, but the stick part ended in a fish’s tail. On one side of a figolla Ma spread jam and marzipan. Then she covered it with the identical shape, as if she was making a sandwich. After the figolli had been baked and cooled, they were covered with colored icing and piped royal icing. Then a decorated Easter egg was placed on top of each figolli. For the final touch a cardboard woman’s face was inserted into the mound of the J.
The odd thing about Ma’s traditional figolli was that it was a mermaid. I asked Ma why a mermaid and not a dove. She said, “I don’t know. It’s our tradition.”
Well, you can’t argue with tradition.
In College Point, as Easter approached, the bakeries filled with cross buns, pretzels, braided almond loaves, Easter cookies and marzipan treats. There were also large decorated sugar Easter eggs which had a hole in one end. When we looked into the hole we could see tiny bunny villages. There were also hot cross buns. Ma knew about the cross buns. Since Malta was part of the British Empire, Ma had eaten them in Malta, too.
We brought samples of our mothers’ holiday baking to school. There were lots of pretzels. Since they didn’t have fat or eggs, we could eat them during Lent without risking eternal damnation. I liked the braided loaves which had been covered with almond paste. They reminded me of colomba di Pasqua. I brought some kwarezimal to school. After I explained that the almond cookies didn’t have fat or eggs either, my friends agreed to try them.
Easter for my family was a simple celebration. We went to church, wished everyone a “Happy Easter”, went home and ate our traditional foods. There weren’t any problems until the year Ma’s brother Charlie married an American girl. Aunt Liz wanted to learn more about Maltese customs. Ma invited Charlie and Liz for Easter.
Pop told his oldest sister, Aunt Demi, that we had invited Charlie and Liz. Aunt Demi was worried that our branch of the family was becoming too American. So, Aunt Demi decided that she would come to dinner to make sure that Ma kept everything kosher.
Then Aunt Rita, one of my Sicilian Aunts, heard that we were inviting company for Easter. Aunt Rita always took things personally. She was insulted. Why hadn’t she been invited, too? Ma invited Aunt Rita, Uncle Tony and their children. We had enough folding tables and chairs to seat everyone in the yard. As long as it didn’t rain, Ma thought it would be a nice family dinner.
Easter Sunday morning the sun was shining and the lamb was roasting on a spit in our yard. The tables had been set. Aunt Liz was taking notes and learning recipes. She had brought a dozen cross buns and a jello mold. The only thing missing was the centrepiece. Aunt Demi had told Ma that she would bring a proper figolli.
It was the biggest figolli I’d ever seen. The icing was as thick as my thumb. While Aunt Demi was placing the Easter egg on her mermaid, Aunt Rita marched in and pulled a Colomba di Pasqua out of her tote bag. The colomba had a three-foot wingspan. There was barely room enough for one centrepiece.
Fish or fowl, which would Ma use?
After forty days of fasting and scrubbing, Demi and Rita were lean, clean, Easter tradition machines. Filled with the holiday spirit, they glared at each other.
“What the hell is that?” Aunt Demi spat.
“It’s a dove, a symbol of peace, you idiot,” Aunt Rita shot back.
“It’s Easter. We don’t need a damn dove.”
“Throw that fish back in the sea.”
“The figolli is part of our tradition.”
“Since when did Jesus swim with the fishes?”
Waving a knife, Aunt Demi lunged. “Give me that bread. I’ll cut it up for sandwiches.”
“Over my dead body.”
My Aunt Liz was fascinated by her new in-laws. She wrote down everything they said. Maybe she thought the fight was part of our jolly ethnic holiday tradition. I stayed close to Liz in case she didn’t have sense enough to duck.
Ma went back to the kitchen. She knew she couldn’t reason with her sisters-in-law. Her plan was to hide in the kitchen until the smoke cleared. If they killed each other it would leave more food for the others.
“Maria, get out here,” Aunt Demi yelled. Ma came out. The men and the younger children were nowhere in sight. They were taking a walk to work up an appetite. Demi and Rita were rolling up their sleeves. Liz was taking notes.
“I went to all this trouble,” Aunt Rita whined.
Aunt Demi barked, “Tell this idiot we are using the figolli.”
“It took me forever to make this,” Aunt Rita whined again.
Ma tried to be a good hostess. “They’re so big. We could put them on chairs near the table.”
No luck. The Aunts wanted her to choose one.
Aunt Demi announced, “We are having a traditional Maltese Easter dinner. With a traditional figolli.”
“Do you think our Blessed Mother baked a mermaid?” Aunt Rita sneered.
Demi lunged. Liz wrote.
The lamb was ready. If this dragged on much longer it would be a lump of coal.
Ma sighed, glared at her sisters-in-law and said, “I don’t care if our Blessed Mother made hot dogs and beans. I’m tired of cleaning. I’m tired of baking. I’m tired of the whole damn holiday.
And I’m tired of bread. A few days ago I gave a figolli to a friend who lives down the street. Yesterday she came over and gave me a loaf of challah. So I have another traditional bread from Mrs. Cohen… Mrs. Cohen. That’s it!!”
Without saying another word Ma turned and went back to the kitchen. In a few minutes she returned with the glossy braided challah on the platter.
“Our Blessed Mother was a Jew. She would’ve made a challah. And that’s what we’re having for Easter. It’s traditional. Shut up, sit down and eat.”
And, so saying, Ma started our traditional Easter Dinner.