Easter weekend, which includes "the first Sunday after the first full moon following the first day of spring (March 21) in the Northern Hemisphere," is upon us.
This was decreed in the year 325AD by the Council of Nicaea, the Christian church’s first ecumenical council, and the term "moveable feast" comes from this Christian holiday that falls on different dates. Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This is according to www.timeanddate.com, but whenever it arrives, it always makes me feel that spring has sprung!
Each year, I enjoy planning our Easter meal and this is one occasion when I insist on "cooking and eating British," as my husband says. In our home that means roast lamb, roast potatoes, fresh spring vegetables and lots of mint sauce. The very European tradition of eating lamb at Easter has its roots in early Passover observances before the birth of Christianity.
According to the biblical Exodus story, the people of Egypt suffered a series of terrible plagues and miseries, including the death of all firstborn sons. Jews painted their doorposts with sacrificed lamb’s blood so that God would "pass over" their homes while carrying out punishment. Accustomed to eating roast lamb on Passover, Jews who converted to Christianity continued the tradition at Easter. Additionally, Christians refer to Jesus as the "Lamb of God," so it makes sense that this food appears at the Easter meal.
All that said, a very practical reason back in those pre-refrigeration days is that young lamb would have been one of the first fresh meats available after a long winter. Other meats were scarce at that time of year.
Lamb is not very popular in Coastal Georgia and, in the USA, is very expensive compared to most other meats. In England, lamb is usually cheaper than beef, which surprises my friends in Georgia.
My husband says that Americans don’t like lamb because sheep are cuter and fluffier than cows. I, on the other hand, don’t think that Americans generally enjoy strong flavored meats, and lamb does have a very distinctive flavor. Many who have had lamb just haven’t developed the palate to appreciate it, or they were served poorly cooked lamb in the past and it permanently colored their views.
My late father-in-law had his first and only lamb, some tough, strong-tasting mutton, while serving in the Pacific in World War II, and for the next 60 years steadfastly refused to try it again.
Raising sheep is more suited to the weather and traditions of England and Ireland’s green fields and, of course, to the ranching and wool production industries of New Zealand and Australia. Lamb is also very popular in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine as sheep were and are raised for milk and cheese and then slaughtered. In the US, most animals for food are raised exclusively for slaughter which means that beef, chicken and pork are very cheap, compared to most other places in the world. Lamb is more popular in Texas, California, Colorado and other western states where it is raised, and it is interesting to see how the rivalry between cattlemen and sheep farmers is woven into the fabric of the history of the Old West with the "sheep wars" in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Here in the good ol’ USA, Americans do certainly love their pork and beef. The traditional Easter meal in America is a usually a roast ham. Some claim that it is because ham is supposedly a "Christian" meat, able to be consumed by Christians but not certain other prominent religious groups, including Jewish people. However, the real reason is simply because ham was readily available at Easter time before the introduction of refrigeration. Hogs were butchered in the fall and most hams were salted or smoked to properly cure and store over the winter.
So, moving past the food, I say goodbye this week with a poem from American author Richelle E. Goodrich, which captures the essence of the Easter season for me:
joining in a birdsong, eyeing an early sunrise,
smelling yellow daffodils, unbolting windows and doors,
skipping through meadows, cuddling newborns,
reviving spent life, inhaling fresh air,
sprinkling seeds along furrows, tracking in the mud.
Easter is the soul’s first taste of spring."
God bless America and happy Easter.