Gourmet Girl: Easter Eats

Gourmet Girl - March 31, 2015

Traditional Easter foods and where they came from.

Image by Card Karma.


Have you ever wondered why we decorate eggs at Easter? Or whether lamb or ham is more traditional for the Easter feast? Who first thought of using icing to paint a cross on hot cross buns and why is there always so much candy?

Easter has a long association with food. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon 's name for the goddess of light and spring, Eostre, and special dishes have long been cooked in her honor to ensure fertility. The Easter feast marks the annual return of spring, with ancient traditions and foods that honor the season and, in many places, religious celebrations that mars rebirth.  As the ground is stirring and tree buds and flower bulbs begin to blossom , families around the world are getting ready for the Easter meal this Sunday,  featuring lamb, ham, sometimes turkey, the fruits of spring—asparagus, sweet peas, carrots, radishes, ramps, rhubarb—and, of course, eggs.

Photo by Alpha.


Whether hand-blown and decorated or poached for Eggs Benedict, eggs have long been a staple at Easter. As early as 5,000 BC, eggs were exchanged as a sign of friendship during the spring equinox and annual festivals—colored, blessed, and consumed . The ancient Zoroastrians painted eggs to celebrate New Year celebration, held on the spring equinox and Russia, the tsars celebrated the holiday with more fanfare than they did Christmas, serving Easter breads, and exchanging jeweled eggs made by goldsmith Carl Faberge.

The egg is a symbol of Easter around the world, The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, and Hindus all believed the world started with a giant egg, thus securing the notion of the egg as a symbol of rebirth. Christians adopted the egg is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, who rose from his sealed tomb the same way a bird breaks through an eggshell at birth.

Carved eggs.


The Germans have long blown out eggs to empty their contents, then painted and decorated the shells with pieces of lace, cloth or ribbon. They hang them with ribbons on an evergreen or small tree. In Moravia, young girls carried the eggs from house to house on the third Sunday before Easter. The tradition came to America via Germans who  became known as Pennsylvania Dutch, along with the legend of the Easter bunny who delivers colored eggs to children.  

Lamb, another popular Easter food, has long been a Christian symbol for the sacrificial lamb, or Christ. Roast lamb is also significant for people of the Jewish faith, as roast lamb was served at the first Passover, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Photo by boodoo.


Ham is also traditionally eaten at Easter time. In pre-Christian Europe, it was a symbol of good luck. Early settlers of the U.S had no refrigeration so they cured their meat, including fresh pork. The pig was slaughtered in the fall, and the cured ham was ready around Easter time so it became part of the Easter feast.

Photo by Garry Knight.


Hot cross buns are one of the oldest traditional Easter foods,  marked with icing crosses on top. They are related to small, round cakes the ancient Egyptians offered to the goddess of the moon, each marked with a symbol of the horns of an ox, which were the moon goddess's symbol. The ancient Greeks also had a sacred bread,made of honey and the finest flour, called “ bous,” or “ox.” Over time, the symbol of the horns morphed into a cross, which may represent the moon's four quarters. The pagans worshipped the goddess Eostre with tiny cakes decorated with a cross at their spring. Archaeologists discovered two small loaves of bread—each with a cross on it—dating to 79 CE among ruins buried beneath volcanic ash in the ancient city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy.

Ancient Anglo-Saxons made wheat cakes to honor their goddess of spring. In Russia's Baltic region kulich is the Easter cake, decorated with crystalized citrus table and decorated with eggsThe Polish baba and the Czech babobka are related to cross buns, and the Greeks and Portuguese made round flat loaves marked with a cross and decorated with Easter eggs, while the Syrians and Jordanians serve honey pastries at Easter celebrations.

Photo by Lyssa Erickson.


And if you're wondering why candy is such a fixture at Easter, here's why: the tradition started in the 19th century at the same time that people started giving candy as Valentine's Day gifts. It's possible that the Industrial Revolution had something to do with this tradition, producing panorama eggs, hollowed sugar eggs with miniature scenes inside, that became popular gifts in Easter baskets.