Maslenitsa

Today is Forgiveness Sunday, the last day in the week-long Russian celebration known as Maslenitsa before The Great Lent begins. This is the day to forgive those who have wronged you over the year and to ask forgiveness from anyone you have wronged. A fresh start to kick off a 40-day saga of fasting and self reflection. An opportunity to try to hurt fewer people’s feelings, be more generous, less critical, less selfish… whatever your fatal flaw, today is the day to seek redemption and try again.

Russian Orthodox Lent begins on Clean Monday, instead of Ash Wednesday like Roman Catholic Lent. Both religions fast during Lent, but the Orthodox church’s asceticism really shows up the Western church’s endeavors at self-denial. While Roman Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent, in my experience this is just an excuse to attend beer soaked fish-fries at VFW Halls. On Clean Monday the devout Russian Orthodox do not eat at all, and then only uncooked food on Tuesday and Thursday of the first week of Great Lent. They then follow that up with a strict regimen of restrictions, including no meat at all, throughout the 7 weeks leading up to Orthodox Easter.

Keeping with the great tradition of gluttony before fasting, the week before this intense abnegation is the festival of Maslenitsa, or Butter Week or Pancake Week. Dairy and Eggs are forbidden during the Great Lent. Russians use up any stockpiles of these ingredients by gorging on blini, which are yeasted pancakes made with buckwheat or white flour, butter and milk and served drenched in hot butter, sour cream and any number of additional delicacies. Blini are a sacred food in Russia, and like many Christian traditions, this festival’s origins are pagan. In Slavic Mythology, the round, golden blini symbolize the return of the sun and farewell to Winter.

This Russian version of Mardi Gras or Carnival is a seven day festival that begins on

wikimedia commons, public domain image

wikimedia commons, public domain image

Monday with the construction of a Maslenitsa Doll out of straw and old women’s clothing. This doll is the mascot of the week and paraded around town on a stick, like the Burning Man with fewer hallucinogens. The first blini are also made on Monday and given to the poor. Tuesday is when the festivities and pursuit of romance begin. (The Sunday after Easter is a popular day for getting married, so unattached men and women are supposed to be on the look out for a mate.) In addition to sleigh riding, parades, clowns, drinking and merriment on this day, men are permitted to kiss any passing woman they choose. This might be acceptable behavior at Burning Man, but in sounds pretty creepy in regular society. So be careful ladies! On Wednesday, sons-in-law are invited to their mother-in-law’s home to feast on blini and compliment the mother-in-law on her hospitality. Thursday is when the revelry becomes mandatory, all non-essential work in the town must stop and everyone gets in on the fun. The main attraction on this day is the official Fist Fights. Men drink large quantities of vodka and punch each other to honor Russia’s military history. On Friday, sons-in-law host their mothers-in-law for a blini feast, which more likely means that their wife does all the work, while the men nurse their hangovers, black eyes and bloody noses from Thursday’s revelry. Saturday is the Sisters-In-Law Gathering, where the youngest wife hosts her sisters-in-law to try to gain their favor and show off her hospitality.

This brings us back to today, Forgiveness Sunday. After a week of butter and vodka-infused debauchery, it is quite likely that one might have a good deal that needs forgiving.

Wikimedia Commons, Pubic Domain Image.

Wikimedia Commons, Pubic Domain Image.

At the end of the day the Maslentisa Doll and any leftover pancakes that you are too bloated buttered to eat are thrown into a bonfire and The Great Lent and all it’s austerity begins.

There are not many of us in modern American culture who have jobs that will enforce a mandatory work stoppage to dedicate an entire week to eating blini, sledding and fist fights so I suggest a one-day party that incorporates as many elements together as you like. For instance, you can invite all your in-laws and anyone you need to forgive and/or punch in the face all to the same party on Saturday or Sunday. If you live in a part of the country that still has snow you could host a sledding or ice skating party at a nearby park and invite everyone back to your house afterwards to warm up with fresh blini, hot tea, mulled wine and of course, vodka!

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Yablochniy Spas – Apple Savior Day – August 19th

Pretty much all agrarian societies have some version of a “First Fruits” celebration, where the products of the first harvest are presented as a religious offering. The Western Christian Church has long since abandon this practice, but the Eastern Orthodox sects have kept the tradition alive with the August 19th celebration of the Great Feast for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, also known as Apple Day in Honor of the Savior (Yablochniy Spas). It is one of three Russian Orthodox holidays celebrated in August, and in my opinion the one with the best food options.

By the time Christianity arrived in Russia, near the end of the 10th Century, there was already a highly detailed calendar of holy days and celebrations set by the Greeks. In the Mediterranean climate, where Christianity has it’s origins, the harvest blessing date was settled on August 19th to coincide with the celebration of the Transfiguration, most likely because that holiday came closest to the harvest time for the two major local crops, grapes and wheat. The Russian climate didn’t support a late August harvest of these crops, so the blessing was broadened to include local fruit, which for Russians is apples in August.

Margaret McKibbon, President of American Friends of Russian Folklore generously shared a great deal of background on this holiday with me, it’s origins and most wonderfully a personal anecdote of a modern celebration:

“I was at a church in Belarus last summer [2011] for Yablochniy Spas… The church was in good repair, with lots of people of all ages attending.  Every family brought a basket  lined with a colorful woven or embroidered towel and filled with apples and other fruit, usually what was growing in their own gardens at home.  The baskets were tucked out of the way until the end of the liturgy, when the parishioners drew back to leave a central aisle clear with baskets on the floor lining it on both sides.  The priest then advanced down the aisle, repeating a blessing as he flicked blessed water with a  whisk over the baskets and the people.  After a closing prayer everybody picked up their baskets and headed for home, the old ladies serenely pedaling their bicycles down the road.

At home, our hostess carefully divided up the blessed fruit into portions for her friends and relatives who had not been at the service.  Much of the rest of the day was spent in paying visits and distributing the blessed fruit, which was always received with reverence  and gratitude.”

The Eastern Orthodox First Fruits tradition is more of a church blessing of the harvest, which is then shared with the community, rather than a tithe or sacrifice as the offering is in many other religions. This idea of sharing of the bounty makes for a great reason to gather your friends and family to celebrate the last, long days of summer. It is considered bad luck in Russia to eat apples before the Spas so this would be the first taste of apples for the year… so feel free to go apple crazy!IMG_1816

Menu

Apple Kvas
Zakusi
Chopped Herring Buterbrodi
Pickled Apples
Fresh Cabbage Salad with Apples and Sour Cream Dressing
Shashlik
Apple Sharlotka

George Washington Ice Cream Social

In addition to being the “birthplace of our nation”, Philadelphia is also the birthplace of American Ice Cream. Ice Cream has been around for Centuries, supposedly originating in China around 3000 BC as a combination of rice and milk over ice. Marco Polo is said to have learned of this delicacy from Kublai Khan and brought it back to Italy in the early 14th Century where stirring techniques and flavoring experiments elevated the dish considerably. Not surprisingly, it’s popularity spread northward through France where they added eggs like they do to everything, making a richer, smoother more custard like confection. But the lighter version that we Americans are most familiar with as ice cream, Cream, Sugar and Flavorings is called Philadelphia Style Ice Cream. While not as rich as French Style ice cream, it requires no cooking, and allows the natural flavors to stand on their own a bit more… quicker, easier, bolder flavor… sounds pretty American to me.

It is fortuitous that the founding of our nation, the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the man who led the Revolutionary army to victory can all be tied together with a sweet, cool, refreshing dessert that is the perfect treat on a hot July day.

George and Martha Washington were famous for their hospitality. They held well known, weekly, informal gatherings at their house in Philadelphia throughout George’s presidency. In the summer months it was very likely one would find ice cream served at these gatherings. Abigail Adams mentioned being “entertained with Ice creems and Lemonade” at one of these parties in the summer of 1789.
In the humid East Coast summer days before refrigeration, ice cream would have been a luxury worth mentioning. The Washington’s had an ice house on their property. This is a underground chamber where winter ice and snow is packed and kept cool for use in the summer months. This is where the ice cream would have been prepared.

The Mount Vernon household records show that ice cream was a central feature of the Summer Dining Menu there as well. The kitchen inventory included a “Cream Machine for Ice”, two “dble tin Ice Cream moulds” and another one that must have been much fancier costing $7, a dedicated ice cream spoon, two pewter ice cream pots and eight tin pots for the same purpose. Their 309 piece china service included “2 Iceries Compleat” 12 “ice plates” and 36 “ice pots”. And Martha Washington’s own copy of The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy contained ice cream recipes.

While a cold cup of ice cream requires a great deal less effort and expense today, it still holds the power to delight your guests, especially if it is homemade.

Clyde eating Ice Cream

A selection of Red, White and Blue ice creams makes for a fun Patriotic assortment. The colors aren’t quite as vibrant as our flag, it’s more like pink, cream and purple but the sentiment is there. And if you decorate each serving with some extra fruit and a little whip cream, you have all the visual power you need.
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This is a simple Summer Party Menu.

Red, White & Blue Ice Cream

Fresh Fruit

George Washington’s Friday Night Party Lemonade

This works great as an ice cream and lemonade only party, or if you want something more substantial, just fire up the grill and cook some burgers, sausages, fish, veggies… George and Martha would approve of any additional hospitality you want to offer.

Blueberry Ice Cream

From Cats and Casseroles
July is the month designated by the US Department of Agriculture to celebrate the native North American fruit, the Blueberry “with appropriate ceremonies and activities”. I think a Fourth of July, George Washington Ice Cream Social featuring Blueberry Ice Cream would qualify as an appropriate celebration, don’t you?

1 c. (half-pint) blueberries, rinsed and any stems removed
1/4 c. sugar
1 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. half-and-half
scant 1/2 c. sugar

1. In a small bowl, toss blueberries with 1/4 c. sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Keep refrigerated 2-3 hours, stirring every 30 minutes or so.

2. Mash sugared blueberries in the bowl, using a fork. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together heavy cream and scant 1/2 c. sugar. Whisk in half-and-half. Add blueberries (and the syrup they’ve created) into cream mixture. Whisk for about two minutes.

Churn according to ice cream manufacturer’s instructions. Enjoy right away, or store in freezer in an air-tight container.

IMG_1891

St. Stephen’s Day

August 20th is a state holiday in Hungary that celebrates the birth of the nation.  It is publicly celebrated in much the same way as the Fourth of July in the United States: fireworks, parades, raising of the national flag, air shows and military demonstrations. But one tradition that is purely Hungarian is the parading of the Holy Right. That is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen that is generally kept on display in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, but on August 20th it is taken out and paraded around town with great pageantry. If only we had George Washington’s teeth preserved to march about in this country!

Stephen was the first Christian King of Hungary and was canonized by Pope Gregory VII on August 20th, 1083 for uniting Hungary under Christianity as well as his prolific building of Roman Catholic churches around the country. That public works program is probably how he got to be the patron saint of masons, stonecutters and bricklayers in addition to being the patron saint of Hungary, kings and children who are dying. That last one is a little confusing, and depressing, but evidence of what a well rounded guy he was, I guess. So much so, that the Eastern Orthodox Church was finally able to overlook the snub of Stephen choosing Rome over Constantinople for his capital of Christianity and made Stephen a saint on their side of the Catholic fence as well in the year 2000. This is an honor that has never been bestowed on any Roman Catholic saint since the two sects split in 1054, demonstrating what a crack PR time Stephen had even a thousand years after his death.


Stephen is closely tied with the Holy Crown of Hungary, which is often called, The Crown of St. Stephen. According to Tradition, Pope Silvester II and Holy Roman Emporer Otto III sent a jeweled crown to Stephen for his coronation on Christmas Day 1000 or January 1, 1001, recognizing Hungary as independent nation for the first time. The interesting thing about the crown of Hungary is that it has legal personhood. The crown itself rules the country, the king is just a vessel for the divine power of the crown… takes a little of the pride of kingship out of  a job that is otherwise pretty fraught with stress, but I guess it also relieves the king of a some responsibility too…  “The crown made me do it” would come in handy as a scapegoat for any world leader.


The August 20th celebration is also the farewell to summer bash in Hungary. A popular Hungarian summertime party tradition is the Szalonnasütés or Bacon Cookout. This is akin to an American backyard BBQ, but instead of hotdogs and hamburgers, bacon is roasted on spits over open flame, and the bacon fat is let to drip onto rye bread with cabbage, onions and radishes to make a porktacular, fatty delicious sandwich. Serve this with Hungarian Potato Salad and Cucumber Salad.
If you have a guest of honor, it might be fun to buy or make a Crown of St. Stephen for that person to wear.

If no one on your guest list is deserving of particular distinction, you can wear the crown yourself and rule the party as the voice of the divine headpiece. If you have children at your party, or hipster adults who enjoy crafting, you could set up a craft table where everyone can make their own mighty crown. With a few sheets of craft foam, an assortment of patterns, scissors, some foam stick-ons and maybe a little glitter-glue, all your guests can become possessed with the power of their own crown.

The piece-de-resistance for a successful St. Stephen’s celebration, is the parading of the Holy Right. Just because the true relic resides under lock and key in Budapest doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate with the same pageantry as the Hungarians. Construct a replica of the hand out of food and parade it through your gathering, and your guests will be feel compelled to follow you with reverence.

*A special thanks to Machaela Cavanaugh for the beautiful photos of the food, Michael Cavanaugh for use of his fantastic camera, Maureen Cavanaugh for the amazing sculptural work and Evelyn Barrett for the beautiful location.

Also a big thank you to all of my sous-chefs.

Basil Shrimp

This recipe calls for BBQ sauce, which I thought to be very suspect as an 18th Century ingredient. But considering that the notion of cooking meat over fire is almost as old as the notion of eating meat, it stands to reason that people have been flavoring this meat for quite some time.  The Native Americans taught the Colonists the art of slow roasting meat over open flame that is what we now consider true BBQ. While I know they weren’t pulling out a jar of Heinz 57, and that the first bottled BBQ sauce didn’t enter the market place until 1926, it seems the invention of this most American of condiments dates imprecisely to the fifteen or sixteen hundreds in the colonies and spread to Europe over the next two hundred years. Some sources reference a sauce for cooking Alpaca meat that Christopher Columbus brought back from Hispaniola as the first, others say it originated in the American Colonies in the 17th Century. It is hard to say what style of BBQ sauce would have been used on a dish like this in Philadelphia, but I used a bottle of KC Masterpiece.

Ingredients
18 jumbo shrimp (thawed if frozen), peeled and deveined
18 fresh basil leaves
18 slices apple-smoked bacon
18 flavorless wooden toothpicks
2 cups vegetable oil
12 ounces BBQ sauce
4 teaspoons  grated horseradish
2 dashes hot pepper sauce

Steps

  1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF
  2. To butterfly the shrimp, make a deep slit along the back of each, but not all the way through. Rinse the shrimp; pat dry. Place one basil leaf inside the slit in each shrimp.
  3. Wrap each shrimp in a slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick.
  4. In a medium stockpot or saucepan, heat the oil over high heat to 350º; when hot, carefully add the shrimp a few at a time.
  5. Deep-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until crisp.
  6. Using a slotted spoon, remove the shrimp from the oil and place on a tray lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.
  7. In a skillet, combine the BBQ sauce, horseradish and pepper sauce.
  8. Add the precooked shrimp to the sauce and heat in the oven for 5 minutes, basting the shrimp often, until the shrimp is heated through.
  9. Serve on a platter garnished with lemon wedges and extra basil leaves.

Fourth of July Celebration

When in the Course of celebrating Independence, it becomes necessary for one host to dissolve the idea of a backyard BBQ as the only option, and to assume among the types of entertaining, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Dinner Party and Dinner Party’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of BBQ revelers requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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It is at a table of the City Tavern in Philadelphia between June 11 and June 28, 1776 that Thomas Jefferson fortified himself to pledge his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to the cause of overthrowing despotism and securing the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all mankind (or at least all white, land owning men in the thirteen colonies…) It is this pledge that Americans celebrate every year on July 4th. While we rarely ascend to the ideals put forth in this landmark document, we count ourselves fortunate on this day to have such an ideal towards which to strive. We have a definition of who we want to be as a nation, who we are trying to be, and who we do not want to be.

I love the Declaration of Independence because it takes seriously the responsibility of explaining the colonies reasons for separating from Great Britain in a manner that is  both reasonable and passionate. (Which is exactly how I like to think of myself, reasonable and passionate.) It puts its self forth with a confidence that almost assumes that King George III upon reading it would shrug his shoulders and say, “Fair enough, go your way then.” It is that elegance and bravado that we are celebrating. We do not celebrate the day the Revolutionary War ended or the ratification of the Constitution as the birth of our nation. We celebrate the day we announced ourselves free, as though it were a forgone conclusion. It may have taken seven years for the British to recognize it, but the United States of America became a country on that day and celebrated it’s first anniversary  “with Pomp and Parade” as John Adams proscribed.

The city of Philadelphia, despite being in the midst of the Revolution, put on an elaborate celebration on that first anniversary, July 4, 1777. There were fireworks, cannon fires, a Hessian band, war ships decked out in the colors of the flag and toasts to freedom and fallen heroes. Huzzahs abounded. An elegant dinner was served at the City Tavern, where the members of the Constitutional Congress conspired and conferred to put the wheels of liberty in motion. It is also where the Congress dined together, as a group on September 17, 1787 after 12 of the 13 states approved the Constitution.

While I remain a fan of firing up the grill and any excuse for a Bratwurst and grilled corn on the cob will win my support, if you are planning a rather intimate Fourth of July celebration, it could be fun to solemnize the occasion in a slightly more formal manner.  Consider a small-scale recreation of that first City Tavern extravaganza, with a few bits thrown in from other early traditions. While the events of the day have been well documented, unfortunately the actual bill of fare has been lost to history. But the City Tavern itself has been painstakingly recreated, and now operates as an historic landmark and authentic/gourmet restaurant. They have published  an extensive cookbook of 18th Century recipes (updated for modern equipment and tastes) and they have personally assured me that a great many things in this cookbook could have been served on that day. I selected a menu that is in no way as extensive as the 1777 feast would have been, but felt authentic to the seasonality and enjoyable for a summer dinner party on the deck.

Menu:
First Plates
Mustard Eggs
Basil Shrimp
Second Plates
Salmon with Fresh Mint and Tomato
Herbed Barley
Green Bean Salad
Rosemary Bread
Dessert
Blueberry Cobbler
Beverage
City Tavern Cooler

A reading of the Declaration of Independence has been a long standing ritual of Independence Day observances. I know it seems kinda nerdy, and also sort of terrifying to stand up in front of your guests and demand they listen to you recite a 235 year old political document. But, just read it out loud to yourself first, I think you will be surprised at how riveting and stirring it is to actually hear the words. The long list of complaints in the middle might be a little long and too specific.  I suggest you skip that section for any audience besides the serious historians, but the rest will keep the rapt attention and ignite the latent patriot in all but the most cynical.

Another early custom (I’m not sure if it took place among the tributes that first year) was to toast each of the thirteen states. The number of toasts grew over the years as did the number of states. This practice may have fallen by the wayside as the number of states became too unwieldy. Sitting through 50 toasts would be trying for even the most devoted Revolution Era listener, but a modern audience couldn’t bear it at all. That’s not even taking into account how drunk everyone would be by the time the Alaska and Hawaii toasts were given, (and what of Puerto Rico and Guam?). So unless you need to fill three hours, and are hoping everyone passes out so you can rifle through their pockets, I don’t suggest trying to tackle all 50 states. Here are a few different ways I think this can be handled.

  • Each guest toasts their own home state (or other state they have lived in or have an affinity for if there are doubles)
  • Stick to the original 13 colonies and assign a state to each guest to prepare in advance. They should include historical as well as modern contributions of the state to avoid too much of a “re-enactment” feel to the festivities. (If you have a few more than 13 guests you can ask for volunteers when you send out invitations and let the first 13 responders give the toasts.)
  • If you have a yearly party you can choose a specific number of states, depending on your toasting tolerance and the oratory skill level of your friends, and alternate which states you honor each year.
  • You could do a single toast yourself where you mention something about each of the 50 states quickly and in a clever way.

In ideal circumstances, you will be able to enjoy these recitations and toasts on your deck, or patio to a backdrop of brilliant fireworks put on by your city government, your neighborhood delinquents or your own family, but even if you can only hear the distant rumbling and popping of other people’s fireworks with none of the visuals, you can imagine yourself transported to a young country, full of idealism and exuberance embarking on a new government. You can close your eyes and hear the canons of warships firing in celebration and the Huzzah’s erupting from the crowd who believe they are building a new world where all citizens will truly be equal and free.