On Easter Saturday, the smell of fatty smoked meats, pungent horseradish, and baking breads will fill the air, not only in kitchens around Northeast Ohio, but also in many churches throughout the Cleveland Catholic Diocese where parishioners will gather to celebrate the end of the Lent. They’ll come with baskets of all shapes and sizes filled with rich yet humble foods that connect them to their heritage and are essential to sustaining the centuries–old custom of blessed Easter foods.
The tradition arrived in Cleveland in the late 1800s with Eastern European immigrants—the Slovaks, Poles, Carpatho-Rusyns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Croatians, and Serbians—who built their neighborhoods and central churches throughout the growing city. They prepared for Easter, the most important and solemn Christian holiday, with a stringent Lenten fast where meats, dairy, and sugar were set aside.
As Easter neared, returning to these foods was joyously anticipated and kitchens hummed with sausage making, bread baking, and food gathering. What went into each family’s basket then, as now, reflected not only their household traditions but also their ethnic tastes.
Hungarian families might include speck, a paprika-dusted smoked bacon, and garlicky sausage, while Poles and Slovaks most certainly include fatty smoked kielbasa. All baskets hold lamb-shaped butter, golden paska breads (homemade or bakery-bought) studded with raisins or almonds, a ruby-hued mixture of horseradish with grated beets, salt, colored eggs, and a candle. Each one of the contents holds particular meaning or religious symbolism and many families improvised, adding photos of family, a bottle of wine, budding pussy willow branches, or other special foods to make each basket a personal and spiritual reflection of their family’s Easter celebration.
When the food is ready, it fills baskets, large and small, old and new, many lined with cloths, some family heirlooms hand-embroidered with Easter or decorative symbols. Then it’s off to the local church where parishioners gather for a short blessing ceremony. Baskets line the aisle or altar, cloths are peeled back and a quiet spirit of competition among cooks and bakers begins as baskets are admired for the intricately braided breads and elaborately decorated eggs they hold. The priest or deacon presents a reading or speaks of the tradition before offering a short prayer and bestowing the blessing on the foods with a sprinkling of holy water.
The “rule” is that none of the food is to be sampled before it’s blessed no matter how tempting, but afterward, on the ride home from the blessing, sneaking a taste or two often can’t be helped. Some families will enjoy the feast that Saturday afternoon, others will wait until Easter vigil services are over or save it until Easter morning. That’s when this unpretentious meal, rich with meaning, will be set on the table, just this one time a year, and leave those who will enjoy it feeling satisfied—and blessed.