Easter is Something Special for Slovaks
Dr. Michael V. Simko
For families of Slovak extraction, it’s not oatmeal and pancakes at Easter breakfast. More likely, the menu offers Easter bread in the form of a lamb, a ball of Easter cheese or egg roll, boiled ham and “kolbasy,” usually prepared on Holy Saturday. A bowl of decorated eggs in the center adds identity to this particular festive morning meal.
Whether God or food comes first at Easter is debatable, for the solemnity and delights of the Resurrection feast start in the kitchen of Slovak residents. Clinging to their ethnic awareness, even second and third generations seem intent on perpetuating this traditional schedule.
To the Slovak family, good fortune and plentiful food are indications of the beneficence of the Almighty, from whom all blessings flow, according to devout ancestral religious beliefs.
At the Easter holiday, then, Slovaks manifest their gratitude to heaven through special foods. Preparation for the “Velka Noc” (magnificent night) observance starts with marketing and baking: beets and horseradish, eggs and milk for a particular cheese, poppyseed and nuts for delicious rolls, a generous Easter loaf called “paska,” smoked kolbasy (pork sausage), and the inevitable boiled ham.
While Velka Noc is an occasion for specially baked dishes, Holy Week calls for daily attendance at church services, fasting and abstinence, even though current Lenten regulations are more relaxed than in former years.
Lenten austerity of no music, no theaters, no gaiety, subdued behavior and restricted appetites ends on Easter morn, when the family partakes of the food blessed the day before.
Holy Saturday begins at daybreak for the housewife, anticipating hours over a hot stove, with only a relaxed evening at church devotions, where little Mary and Johnny take part in a procession headed by four stalwalt men bearing a figure of the risen Savior while the choir chants: “Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia. Let us praise God.”
The boiled ham and pork sausages offer no problem. Easter bread, nut cakes and poppyseed rolls, and “syrok” (Easter cheese or egg roll) absorb all the energy and culinary talents of the industrious housewife. Her reward is seeing her family exclaim over the paska, the exciting rolls and nut cakes, the sharp beets and horseradish, and the savory egg roll.
Energy is part of the program, kneading and rolling the dough, while Johnny is directed to grate the horseradish outdoors to check the tears and smarting of his eyes. After the loaf, in a lamb-shaped mould, and baked items are set in the oven, mother mixes grated beets and horseradish with a dash of vinegar to add relish to the ham and kolbasy.
All must be in readiness by 4 o’clock, when a basket is arranged for the traditional blessing of food. This practice dates back several centuries and is considered by some authorities as being of pagan origin. In early times, during Lent, eggs were forbidden as articles of diet. So at the end of the long deprivation, the worshippers celebrated by decorating the eggs and having their food blessed.
Mothers and daughters gather with their colorful baskets before the church altar, while a priest sprinkles the savory display with holy water and prays: “May the grace of Your blessing, we beg You, Lord, descend upon these eggs, so that they might be a healthful food for Your faithful, who gratefully consume them in celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. O Lord. You have blessed all of this food created by You: may it be a means of good health for mankind. Through Christ, our Lord, Amen.”
Each basket offers the same assortment: a saucer of beet horseradish, a cube of sweet butter, a slice of ham, a section of reddish kolbasy, a canary-yellow slice of Easter cheese, a peeled hard boiled egg, a colored egg, a wedge of paska, small pieces of nut cake and poppyseed roll, and lastly, an ounce of salt.
With smiling thanks, the housewives draw a white napkin over the contents and leave, placing on a table culinary offerings of appreciation for their pastor.
Except for Christmas, no table setting equals the Easter breakfast in the home of a Slovak. No one is seated until after the father thanks God for this bountiful collation. Then each one present must taste a portion of the blessed food. The housewife serves her husband first, then the children, and lastly, herself.
Tradition directs that the table offer a generous-sized boiled ham, long links of pork sausage, boiled eggs, with a collection of decorated eggs as a centerpiece, sweet butter, a large loaf of Easter bread in the form of a lamb, a grapefruit-size ball of Easter cheese or egg roll, an overflowing platter of poppyseed and nut cakes, and, unfailingly, a saucer of grated beets and horseradish mixture guaranteed to give a tangy, sharp taste to the kolbasy and ham.
Small wonder, then, that one generation after another eagerly anticipates this memorable breakfast of the Resurrection, even though ethnic customs are declining in this country far removed from the shadows of Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains.
Source: SLOVAKS IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA