Easter ritual plays out in the kitchen, at the table


I AM NOT SURE WHEN IT HAPpened, but at some point Easter stopped being about new clothes and started being about food.

I grew up in a time when Easter Sunday required a whole new outfit, from hat to shoes.

As a little girl, Easter meant new patent leather Mary Janes and a bonnet with an annoying elastic string under the chin. If the holiday came late enough in the season, it might be good for a new pair of white summer sandals.

When I was older, Easter meant something in navy blue and white. Very sophisticated. One year, I made my own outfit, including a matching coat. I gave up the hat, but not the new purse.

As a devout teenager, the Saturday before Easter meant a car wash fund-raiser for the church youth group. I spent Sunday going from a sunrise church service to a regular church service, arriving home in time for my mother's ham dinner, complete with mashed potatoes and milk gravy.

But Easter dinner was just something we did between church and a long afternoon nap. I never thought much about it until all these years later, when it was time to prepare my own.

Now that my children are scattered, Easter appears to be one of those holidays for which they can be expected to return -- largely because of the promise of food. Lots of food. My daughter loves to cook and my son loves to eat and I love having them in my kitchen. It is the perfect confluence of desires.

We started inviting neighbors to Easter dinner a couple of years ago, and the crowd has grown. My friend, Susan, and her two children -- my children's best friends from babyhood -- are often there. So is my friend Betsy, who is Jewish, and her family. Easter may be a religious holiday, but Easter dinner is non-denominational.

This year, my husband's brother and his wife and three kids will be joining us for the weekend. So will my sister and her husband. My nephew and his roommate will be here, too.

You have to cook a lot of food to feed that many people, and we will. I call it panic cooking. It is like panic buying, only with a stove. I will bake a ham, of course, just as my mother always did. There will be kielbasa and sauerkraut, too, and their pungent aromas will greet the guests before we do.

And I will bake my version of "Grandma's Beans," a barbecued butter bean concoction made from the only recipe my mother-

in-law ever wrote down for me before she died. My son, Joe, says I can't call them "Grandma's Beans" anymore.

"They are your beans now," he says.

Jessie is in charge of desserts. She has the patience to bake, which I do not. And she makes the most perfectly decorated Easter cookies.

My husband will have to bring a table in from the garage just to hold all the food. I drag out a stack of pastel colored plates from a basement cupboard and the rainbow of linen napkins that match. Joe just walks around the kitchen with a spoon, sampling. He always acts like he hasn't eaten in a month.

If this expanding Easter tradition does not seem very devout, I remind myself that new clothes certainly didn't either.

But there is something about food that is sacred, I think. The preparation of it, the sharing of it. The act of feeding people you love the food they love is the kind of ritual that binds a family more surely than blood.

There will be empty places at Easter dinner, as there are at every holiday now. Strangely, the food we serve year after year evokes the ones we love, now gone.

Easter dinner will be a celebration, but tinged with some regret. I never did learn how to make my mother's milk gravy.


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