April 10, 2009
On slower days at the office (or procrastination-prone days) it can be fun to peruse Proquest, a database of historical newspapers, for recipes from the past. I tried that recently with the keyword “Easter,” and realized that not too much has changed in Americans’ Easter meals over the years — eggs, ham or lamb, and hot cross buns are perennial favorites. But the recipes have morphed a bit, as has our language. Here’s a few choice morsels:
A March 1894 Chicago Daily Tribune column about Easter foods presents several “novel methods” for preparing eggs, including scrambled eggs with a dash of freshly grated nutmeg and a squeeze of lemon juice, which I’m tempted to try. But it also describes something called “eggs in surprise” which, for some reason, doesn’t seem to have endured through the years:
Make an oyster forcemeat with about a pint of breadcrumbs, eight or ten oysters cut up finely, two or three ounces of butter, a little salt, cayenne, minced parsley, and herbs, the yolk of a couple of raw eggs, and a little of the oyster liquor; have ready some hard-boiled eggs, shell them, roll each one in the forcemeat, then dip it in beaten egg, and roll it in breadcrumbs or crushed vermicelli, and fry it in boiling butter. Drain and serve piled on a hot dish, and garnished with fried parsley.
This confirms my suspicion that the word “surprise” in the context of food names is code for “yucky.”
Well, let’s see if tastes improved at all by April 1909, when the Washington Post ran an article simply headlined “Eggs—Plain and Otherwise.” The writer lauds something called “Eggs J.B. Reagane,” described as shirred (poached) eggs served with “asparagus tips, a small spoonful of French peas, one shrimp, a shred of sweet red pepper, and a few pieces of French string beans.” (Sounds promising, and oddly specific. If I make it a large spoonful of American peas instead, can I call it “Eggs Bensen”?)
Then there’s the Easter breads. I found plenty of recipes for hot cross buns, like this easy one from the 1940 Chicago Tribune:
Take 2 cups sifted flour, 3 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 2 Tbsp sugar, 1/4 cup shortening, 1/2 cup milk, 1 egg, and 1/2 cup currants.
Mix and sift all dry ingredients together. Cut in the shortening until the mixture is in coarse particles. Add currents. Add milk to beaten egg and stir into the dry mixture to make a soft dough. Turn out on a floured board and knead gently for about half a minute, or pat out and fold over about four to six times. Cut off pieces of dough and roll lightly between the palms to form balls. Place on a lightly floured baking sheet and bake 12 to 15 minutes in a 425 degree oven. Ice while hot with uncooked icing (1 Tbsp hot water, 1/2 tsp vanilla, 1 Tbsp melted butter, 1 cup confectioners sugar), making a cross on each bun.
In the countercultural 1960s, as gender roles shifted, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a “For Men Only” column that offered a recipe for Easter ham baked in a blanket of brandy-spiked dough, which I’m too lazy to type out in full. If you’d like to experiment with a version of your own, it involves a glaze of brown sugar, honey and mustard, and a crust made of rye dough flavored with beef bouillon, garlic and herbs. The key is to leave a hole in the top of the dough blanket and pour in “all the brandy that the…jacket will absorb” roughly halfway through the baking process. The result, the writer promises, will be “indescribable.” (Uh oh, does that mean “surprise?”)
Oh, and let’s not forget lamb, traditionally part of the Easter feast because of its association with Christ, which you’ll find after the jump. (Lamb recipes, I mean, not Christ himself. We’re not that good.)
You could go uber-basic:
Fore Leg of Lamb: Have the bones removed (save and boil for broth) and part of the fat taken off. Make a plain stuffing and fill the spaces, shaping into an oval loaf. Steam two hours, then season with salt and pepper. Dredge flour over and bake, basting often. (Boston Globe, 1896)
You could dress it up with mint sauce:
Chop fine the amount of mint needed for one cup of sauce…at least two tablespoons…Mix it with a little sugar. Cook together a cup of cold water with a level tablespoon of cornstarch until it has thickened and is transparent. Add a pinch of salt, the sugared mint, and two tablespoons of vinegar. Let simmer gently for 10 or 15 minutes, strain, and serve. (Chicago Daily Tribune, 1924)
Or, you could think way outside the box and get your lamb on the table in meatless form. I think butter lambs are nifty, but lamb-shaped cakes sound like a recipe for creepy disaster. (Especially when the should-be-cute little creatures are inexplicably smoking).
Personally, I don’t think lamb will be on my table in any form this weekend, but eggs will definitely be incorporated in the brunch I’m having with friends, and I might try my hand at hot cross buns, too. What’s your traditional, or not-so-traditional, Easter meal of choice?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.