Easter Foods: Why ham and eggs?

March 31, 2010

Colored eggs, chocolate rabbits, baked hams and roasted lamb. These are all foods we prepare and enjoy at Easter. But have you ever wondered how these traditions evolved or why eat these foods at Easter time? Food historian Bruce Kraig explains:

The main Christian holy day (actually more than a month) celebrates Jesus' resurrection, but the idea of rebirth in the spring season and many customs come from older observances. The name Easter is used in English speaking countries-in other countries it's some version of Paschal. That word comes from the Hebrew Pesach, or Passover because Jesus' Last Supper was likely a Seder.

Easter comes from an early German/Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn-rebirth of the year, Eostre. Her symbol was a rabbit that laid eggs. Egg symbolism is even older than that. The earliest representations date to at least 7,000 year ago in the Neolithic civilizations of Eastern Europe- eggs, female deities, even the color red and designs on modern Easter eggs are found there. Hot cross buns (I'll show them) probably come from Eostre celebrations-the cross is ancient Anglo-Saxon symbol, from at least the 5th century AD.

Hatching eggs remind people of newborn or reborn life and rabbits are prolific breeders especially in the spring. Because Christians are supposed to observe Lent before Easter and can't eat eggs or meat, you can see why these two would become important foods when Lent is ended.

Decorating Easter eggs dates to Medieval Europe; so does egg rolling. In America, dyed and decorated Easter eggs were brought by Germans in the later 18th and 19th centuries, especially Pennsylvania Dutch. They became popular during the 19th century as Easter celebrations became more focused on children-it's fun. Other ethic groups, Greeks for instance, use red-that's as old as the Neolithic and blood means new life.

Hiding and hunting eggs might mean hunting for a suitable mate, but more likely comes from rural traditions when people would have to find eggs laid in fields and hedges by chickens and other birds. It also means hunting rabbits. This, too, became a children's game (that's happened to lots of our holiday customs-like Halloween).

Eggs are a big part of Easter foods, whether eaten alone or in all the fancy baked breads of the season.

If Jesus ate meat at the Last Supper, it would have been lamb. Jewish Passover traditions call for lamb, and so do most European traditions. But, in north Europe pigs, were always important. Hams, from pigs slaughtered in the winter, then salted and smoked were ready to eat in the spring-before fresh meats were available. This is especially true in North America where lamb was never an important meat.

Easter/Spring is supposed to make people happy (as in the end of winter in Chicago) and what could make us happier than sugar and theobromide-chocolate? That's a 19th century invention; chocolate eggs, rabbits, chicks and the like because hardened chocolate candies weren't invented until about 1850 and not popular until the late 1870s (it's a matter of technology). Besides, when egg production became industrialized, egg gifts did not seem too special. Chocolate, now more widely available, is always welcomed because we love it. New production methods allowed mass production of filled chocolate candies-creams, especially, so Easter confections moved from boutique candy makers to the wider retail market. Chocolate candies became cheaper and cheaper, especially as less and less chocolate was used (maybe 15% in most common candies) and by the 20th century the market was flooded with holiday candies. Valentine's Day and Christmas are two other big ones.

If you're not going out to catch a rabbit or hunt up eggs in fields, then just buy some candy avatars-especially marshmallow Peeps (how about blue ones?).

Bruce Kraig is the founding President of Culinary Historians of Chicago culinaryhistorians.org. With a Ph.D. in History and Archaeology, Dr. Kraig is Professor Emeritus in History and Humanities at Roosevelt University, Chicago. An internationally recognized food historian, he has been host and writer for a series of award-winning food documentaries for PBS. Dr. Kraig has also appeared on ABC National News, Good Morning America, and BBC News. He delivered the keynote address to America's food editors at the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off, and is a regular speaker at the Oxford (England) Symposium on Food and Cookery. Dr. Kraig has written several cookbooks and his articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

NOTE: Easter ham provided by Fox & Obel Market, fox-obel.com, 401 E. Illinois Street, Chicago, IL 60611

Easter cakes provided by Chef Jenny Lewis and her baking students from the Lexington College culinary school in Chicago, lexingtoncollege.edu

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