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


Apple Kvas
Chopped Herring Buterbrodi
Pickled Apples
Fresh Cabbage Salad with Apples and Sour Cream Dressing
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.

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.

Santa Lucia Day

December 13th is the feast day of Santa Lucia, a fourth century maiden who endured torture and execution rather than an undesirable marriage. She is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse in Sicily as well as the blind and all eye trouble.

Lucia was born to a wealthy family in Syracuse during the Diocletian Persecution, which was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. It is estimated that about 3000 Christians were executed under Diocletian’s reign. Legend has it that young Lucia was betrothed to a pagan, whom she refused to marry out of religious conviction. To drive home her devotion to Christ (or make herself less of an attractive marriage prospect), she dispersed her dowry to the poor. Her suitor was so angered by this rejection and loss of fortune that he reported her as a Christian to the local authorities.

There are a few different accounts of what happened here. One story is that this suitor had expressed admiration for her beautiful eyes, so she plucked them out and gave them to him, with a request to leave the rest of her for God. My mother once told a young man she didn’t want to date any more that she was joining the convent. Lucia pretty much used the same tactic, but way more bad-ass. That should get the message across, “I actually would rather gouge out my own eyes than be with you.” God was so pleased with this break-up method that he healed her eyes and they were more beautiful than before. This is why Santa Lucia is often pictured holding a tray of eyeballs.

Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is even more gruesome and less awesome. After being denounced by her one time admirer, she was condemned to work in a brothel. (The punishment for wanting to keep your chastity is work detail as a prostitute, what a sophisticated sense of irony those Romans had!) When the prison guards came to take her to her new job she was so filled with the Holy Spirit that they could not move her. After a mighty struggle that allegedly involved 100 men and 50 oxen, the guards decided to burn her where she stood. Miraculously the fire did not harm her. (Or maybe the guards were afraid of being asphyxiated or burning the place down by starting a fire indoors.) So finally they gouged her eyes out with a fork and stabbed her with a sword. This finally killed her.

How festive! Is there a better back story for a pre-Christmas, breakfast party?  Santa Lucia Day is popularly celebrated in Sweden where they do not make much use of the actual story of her life and martyrdom. Before the calendar was changed from the Julian to the Gregorian, December 13th was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. And Sweden has some of the shortest short days. The name Lucia means “Light” and on this day the oldest daughter in the family rises early, dons a white robe with a red sash, to symbolize both Lucia’s purity, and her martydom, and wears an evergreen crown with four lighted candles, as it is believed that Lucia wore candles on her head when she went into the catacombs where persecuted Christians hid to bring them food. This allowed her to light her way in the dark tunnels, while keeping her hands free to minister to the needy. The daughter wakes her family at dawn with a breakfast of coffee, gingerbread and saffron St. Lucia Buns. This greeting of the day symbolizes Lucia bringing back the light, as the days will begin to get longer again. The oldest girl can be accompanied in a procession by her younger sisters, also dressed in white and carrying candles and her brothers, the “Star Boys”, in white cone shaped hats adorned with stars representing the night Lucia is banishing or the Star of Bethlehem. If you have young children you may want to consider making a paper candle crown to avoid a tragic fire. Here is a link to a great example of how to make your own hazard free crown and star boy hat.

This is the official start of the Christmas Season in Sweden and is celebrated in schools, hospitals, town centers and businesses. The Lucia-Bride, as the white robbed girl is called, is a goodwill ambassador who visits the poor, the sick and the blind delivering food, money and spreading holiday cheer in the spirit of her namesake.

First Thanksgiving

What is known as “The First Thanksgiving”, the three day harvest celebration of the English Colonists of Plymouth known as the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag Indian Tribe was probably very different from a traditional Thanksgiving dinner today.

There is no official record of what was served, but there is plenty of information on what was not available, and it was a lot. Turkey may have been served, but it was more likely duck or goose. Potatoes had not made it into the Indian diet yet and the English still thought they were poisonous. Sweet potatoes were still a rare delicacy in England, and thought to be a potent aphrodisiac, so not really in  line with the whole Puritan ethos. Apple’s are not native to North America and were not imported until the end of the 17th Century. (“As American as Apple Pie”, pretty much means, “As American as any English Import”) Sugar and Flour would have come from the supplies the Pilgrim’s brought with them, which would have been almost completely depleted by this time. So no pie of any kind. No cows or goats or other dairy animals. So no milk, whipped cream, butter or cheese.

I know what you are thinking… you will have an absolute mutiny on your hands if you eliminate all of these time-honored favorites in pursuit of absolute authenticity. Don’t Panic! The Historic Hostess is here to help you throw fun parties with delicious food and fascinating historical backstories, not to torture your family and friends by forcing them to politely endure the culinary constraints of a society who were celebrating that half of their original party were still alive, and that they had anything to eat at all.

So we have created a menu that is inspired by this first feast, incorporating the ingredients they were known to have had, avoiding things we know they didn’t have, but cheating here and there when the taste compromise would be too great. We make an effort to note where we stray from reality, so you can make more severely accurate choices if you like.


Pilgrim Pumpkin Punch

Venison Stuffed Mushroom Caps
Wampanoag Sobaheg (Stew)

Main Dish
Roast Goose with Chestnuts, Prunes and Armagnac

Side Dishes
Mixed Greens with Dried Blueberries and Cranberries, Walnuts and Goat Cheese
Cornbread Dressing with Roasted Fall Vegetables
Cranberry, Shallot and Dried Cherry Compote
Mushy Peas
Cabbage Cole Slaw with Mustard Viniagrette

Pumpkin Pudding
Maple Walnut Pie

While this 1621 feast is the event commemorated in our modern Thanksgiving celebrations, it was not what would have been considered “a day of thanksgiving” in 17th Century culture. In those days, a day of thanksgiving was a day of religious devotion spent in prayer and fasting. It was pretty much the opposite of the secular celebration of overeating and football that it is today. The Pilgrim/Wampanoag party, however was a celebration of the harvest. This was a common practice both in English society and among the Native Americans. Edward Winslow’s account (the only primary account of the event) lets us know that this was no dour day of supplication, but a long weekend of eating and merry-making.

“…at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted,”

The Puritans were not big on recreation in general, and did not really keep records of what they did for fun, as fun was frowned upon. But we do have knowledge of popular entertainments of the era, and some of which are still played today, other more unfamiliar games would be a lot of fun to recreate.

The Pilgrims did not make an annual event of this first Thanksgiving Day in the New World. In fact, while various states celebrated a day of feasting in thanksgiving in the early days of the republic, the date was not fixed nationally until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation in an effort to unify the fractured country in the midst of the Civil War. And FDR finally made it a national holiday by federal legislation in 1941, and moved the date from the final Thursday in November, to the fourth (not always final) Thursday in November.

The exploitation of this one shining positive example of Colonial and Native relations in the New World as though it was the start of a long and cooperative relationship is certainly a valid criticism of this holiday and how we look at it in this country.  But I think it is important to look at an example of when we feel like we are at our best and hold that example up and try to emulate it. If the 1621 Harvest Festival Feast shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians is the best example we have of accepting help from more experienced people, and then graciously thanking them for it by sharing the bounty of that assistance, then that is what we are celebrating, teaching and trying to replicate. We have failed at it many times in the last 400 years, but that doesn’t mean we stop being thankful that it happened once, and try to make it happen again.

The Historic Hostess is thankful for our readers, for helping us to celebrate the best our varied cultures have to offer and to learn from the mistakes we have made as a society throughout history one meal at a time.

We are thankful for our families and friends who have helped us cook, photograph, research and most importantly, shared these meals with us.

We are thankful to have the means to make this food, to learn about it, to write about it and to have an audience to read about it.

And this year we are especially thankful for the healthy birth of Baby Mara Moran Coffey, the newest Historic Hostess. We are looking forward to many celebrations in her honor.

Leif Erikson Day

Lief Erikson is regarded as the first European to set foot in North America. While that might not be entirely true, according to The Greenlanders Saga, he did establish the first European settlement there, 500 years before that old media monopolizer Christopher Columbus hitched up his sails.  On his voyage in 1002, Leif first stopped on a rocky island he named Helluland (Land of Flat Stones), which is probably Baffin Island, Canada. Next he checked out a flat and woody area he called Markland (Wood-land) before settling in the famed Vinland. He named the settlement, Liefsbúdir which poetically translates to “Lief’s Storage Houses”.

It would seem from this name that Leif did not intend this to be a permanent settlement, but he did stay for the winter and return to Greenland in the spring with a cargo of timber and singing the praises of a land of wild grapes, abundant salmon swimming in the river, mild winters and year round green grass. The actual location of this idyll is still hotly debated more than a thousand years later. The salmon-teeming rivers would not have existed south of New Brunswick, and wild grapes do not grow as far north as Newfoundland. So the whole package couldn’t have really existed all in one place.  But we do know that Leif’s father, Erik the Red sold settlers on moving to a new locale from Iceland by naming it Greenland to evoke images of verdant pastures filled with grazing livestock and fertile cropland, even though that only pertained to a small coastal area of an otherwise frozen tundra. So it is likely that the father taught the son that good marketing is the life blood of any successful colonization project. A Norse settlement from that era has been identified on the northern tip of Newfoundland known as L’Anse aux Meadows, which could be Liefsbúdir, if it is in fact a home base from which further exploration took place. The colony only survived about 15 years, when it was abandoned after conflicts with the native peoples became too troublesome.

Leif Erikson Day (October 9th) is an American Holiday that honors the contributions of Americans of Nordic descent. Lief’s heritage encompasses the overall Nordic region fairly comprehensively as his grandfather was Norwegian, but had to flee to Iceland due to man-slaugter charges. His father, Erik The Red, followed in the family tradition and was exiled from Iceland for three years for murder, which he spent exploring Greenland. And Lief lived in each of those countries before embarking on his Western Journey to Canada. His Day is a celebration of Scandinavian Heritage, much in the way that St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Irish and Mexican in each of us. In my extensive research of Scandinavian-American culture (listening to News From Lake Wobegon on NPR) I feel qualified to make the gross generalization that they are a less boisterous people than the Irish and Mexicans among us. A certain Calvinist modesty perhaps has kept them from promoting this holiday with the same zeal. Or maybe it is just because Scandinavian liquor like Aquavit is harder to come by than Guinness or Jose Cuervo.

I think a Viking spirit of exploration is something to be celebrated on this day. While I know that an errant early October snowstorm is not unheard of in parts of the United States, there’s a good chance the weather will be autumn perfection on October 9th, and a good explorer would want to take advantage of such conditions. Search out some new (to you) hiking trails in your area, pack a picnic of Scandinavian Delights and trek out to discover your local grassy meadows, and salmon streams. From my thorough study of this regions culture (Reading Steig Larson’s Dragon Tattoo Trilogy) I have gleaned that coffee is an integral part of Scandinavian hospitality and social interaction. (The top six coffee consuming countries of the world are Scandinavian: Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden. The U.S. is all the way down at number 27). This isn’t really surprising considering how much coffee I would need to get through days with 20 hours of darkness. So pack a thermos of coffee to enjoy with your snacks and offer to your fellow revelers. No self respecting Scandinavian host would be caught without a fresh cup to offer to a friend.

Talk Like A Pirate Day

Avast me hearties! The time is upon us to go on account, carry ye letters of marque and make parley. No Prey, No Pay ye cowardly swabs! Talk Like A Pirate Day is nigh. Bring out yer eye patch, yer peg leg and yer hook hand. Dance a jig, fly your black flag and let your enemies know that they must strike their colors if they expect any quarter to be given.

Despite being violent thieves and murderers, Pirates appeal to our spirit of adventure, freedom and entrepreneurialism. The pirate ship operated as a democracy long before Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. They were one of the only fairly successful experiments in socialism, where spoils were evenly split among the crew. In the Golden Age of Piracy the social hierarchy in legitimate society was extremely rigid, and the idea of rising above your station was almost impossible. The life of a pirate promised an opportunity to be master of your own destiny, even if that destiny usually led to an early and watery grave. It was a life that even appealed to some women. Which isn’t all that surprising, since the roles available women in those days were even more limiting. If a woman had the skills and knowledge to command a ship bring profit to her crew, there were no social mores to prevent her from doing just that. There was probably a lot more that was unpleasant about the life of a pirate than we like to think about (weevil infested biscuits, scurvy, constant threat of death) but Talk Like a Pirate Day is about celebrating the swashbuckling roguishness as well as the brilliantly colorful vocabulary of these seafaring criminals. Everyone from my two year lad to your 90 year old grandmother knows how satisfying it is to bellow out AAARRGGHHH!

So raise a tankard of Grog with your wenches, open your coffers, pull out a few doubloons and put on a pirate feast. This is not a holiday to worry yourself with the reality of a pirate’s life. This day is about Captain Jack Sparrow, Errol Flynn, Flying from the sails with a sword in hand and getting the girl.

Ahoy Mateys! Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day!

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.