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Hilde Lee: Easter lambs and eggs have shared holiday message around the world

In many countries of the world, lamb is the traditional meat for Easter dinner. However, in many areas of this country, it is baked ham, particularly in the South. Also, many people of the younger generation do not eat lamb. Thus, in recent years, the appeal of young roasted lamb with all the trimmings has lost some of its appeal for Easter dinner.

There is the misconception of spring lamb. True, most lambs are born in the spring, but they do not reach their weight of 105 to 115 pounds, suitable for marketing, until fall. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that is the ideal weight of an animal that is classified as lamb. Generally, the flesh from sheep younger than 1 year of age is considered to be lamb, while flesh from older sheep is referred to as mutton.

Sheep are among the earliest of man’s animal foods. Archaeologists have found remains that indicate that people in prehistoric times ate bighorn sheep. Throughout Asia, nomadic tribes, who later domesticated the woolly animals, followed bands of wild sheep.

Sheep spread from Asia to the Mediterranean countries and throughout Europe. In America, the Spanish, famous for their sheep, introduced them into the Southwest. In Colonial days, the smuggling of sheep into the eastern seaports by adventurous sea captains was a risky business. The English had put restrictions on the importation of profitable animals.

Lambs are surrounded by customs and traditions. In the Christian religion, they have long been symbols of Christ, who is known as the Lamb of God. They also symbolize innocence. However, the pagans included lambs among the animals that were sacred to the goddess Juno.

Since sheep were among the animals that flourished in the arid lands of the Middle East, it is not surprising that they figure largely in the folklore and religions of that area. According to the Bible, the ancient Israelites were for a large part shepherds, and lamb played a great role as ceremonial meat.

One of the earliest recorded directions for using lamb is found in the Old Testament. Before the flight of the Jews from Egypt (which is commemorated with the Passover this week), they were told by the Lord that each household should take a lamb with them.

One of the first cookbook writers, the first-century Roman Apicius, recorded recipes for lamb stew with ginger, parsley and oil. He also wrote about lamb braised in milk, honey, pepper and salt.

Mohammad ibn al Hasan, the 13th-century author of the Bagdad cookbook, which was published in 1226, included a recipe for lamb cooked with pistachio nuts. This was a popular dish with Arabs and Persians, as it is mentioned in “The Arabian Nights.”

Up until about 50 years ago, lamb was much more popular in Europe than in America. English lamb, served with the traditional mint sauce, is one of the favorite dishes of the British Isles. Norwegian lamb is also excellent, as is the French lamb. It seems that the further north in Europe, the more delicate is the lamb.

Until the 1970s, few Americans ate lamb. It was not a highly publicized meat and was not a featured item on restaurant menus. Traditionally, Americans have preferred beef.

Part of the American distaste for lamb seems to have stemmed from the conflict between cattle raisers and sheepherders in the West. In the late 1800s, there were various skirmishes between sheep raisers and cattlemen, as there was not enough grass to sustain both animals and sheep were not usually fenced in. While sheep could graze after cattle, they grazed too low for the remaining grasses to provide subsequent grazing for cattle. Now, both are fenced into separate grazing lands.

For years, Americans disdained lamb because it was mutton. Not until we began processing sheep of one year of age or younger, usually weighing around 35 to 40 pounds, did the American public start eating lamb in quantity. Texans still refer to lamb chops as "wool on a stick."

Now let’s turn to the fun part of Easter — Easter egg hunting. One year, I decided to hide eggs for my dog. What a mess! I had gotten mostly chocolate eggs and placed them among the sofa pillows in the living room.

Teddy, the dog, had a good time, finding the eggs, biting into each one only once and going on to the next one. I was left to clean up the half-eaten eggs, get the chocolate off the sofa pillows, and promise never to do that again. I’ll stick to the Russian Easter eggs.

Over the centuries the most beautifully decorated Easter eggs have been Russian in origin. For centuries, man has created artificial eggs, some of which predate Christianity itself. However, these artificial eggs reached their zenith in Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1884, Czar Alexander III asked Karl Faberge, his court jeweler, to make a special Easter present for the czarina. It was a white enamel egg that opened to disclose a “yolk” in the form of a golden hen with ruby eyes. The hen bore a replica of the imperial crown, which, in turn, held a ruby pendant.

The czarina’s pleasure in the gift, which was a copy of a simpler toy she had loved as a child in her native Denmark, encouraged the czar and his successor, Nicholas II, to commission more eggs. Soon the royal family and the court were exchanging eggs of rock crystal, colored enamels, gold, platinum and ivory. There were eggs with rubies, star sapphires, rose diamonds and pearls. Many of the eggs contained as “surprises” miniature carvings of people and places, scale models of buildings, yachts, an even a train on the great Siberian Railway. The engine was fashioned in platinum and the coaches were gold.

Quite different, and often more beautiful, were the natural Easter eggs decorated by Ukrainian folk artists. The designs on these eggs were often so complex and minutely detailed that they became known as miniature mosaics.

There is archaeological evidence that these Ukrainian eggs were made thousands of years before the beginning of the Christian era. The technique of making them has remained essentially the same and continues as part of the Easter tradition in Russia.

The technique of painting the Russian Easter eggs is not simply a matter of painting directly upon the egg. Instead, a design is traced in beeswax on the eggshell. Then, this design is slowly elaborated in stages with repeated drippings of various vegetable dyes. The finished eggs, with their brilliant colors and intricate geometrical designs based on sun, stars, tripod, cross, and flower motifs, are regarded as true works of art.

These fancy eggs were enjoyed by very few, mostly the very affluent. Most Russians were satisfied with the solid colors that could be achieved with everyday materials, such as onion skins for yellow, beet juice for red, birch leaves and moss for green, and laundry bluing for blue. Decoration, when any was applied, was either painted or scratched on the shell. These were simple forms, such as a double cross or the Cyrillic letters XB. The XB stands for Christos voskres (Christ is risen).

In this country and in most European countries today, there are kits with colors and designs for decorating Easter eggs. The question still remains what to do with all of those hard-boiled eggs after Easter. A platter of deviled eggs is one of the answers.

Happy Easter!


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