Most Christians today will celebrate Easter, enjoying a traditional meal at one of the year’s most important family gathering times.
Ham and turkey seem to be the most popular main course, taking over from the once more popular lamb. Whatever the course, it is one of the biggest feasts of the year. Interestingly it is not until the late 1800s that Easter menus and recipes appeared to fill popular magazines and newspapers.
In Columbus, the old Gilmer Hotel advertised in the 1908 Easter Sunday Columbus Commercial that the hotel would be serving “Easter Dinner.” The first course was sliced tomatoes, celery, dill pickles and fresh cucumbers with Roman punch.
That was followed by salted almonds and mock turtle, consommé St Julian. Then there was baked sea bass, a la creole with Saratoga chips. Then a course consisting of roast prime ribs of beef, au jus with stuffed young turkey, cranberry sauce, barbecue suckling pig and baked apples. The meal concluded with a fruit salad, minced chicken in cases, mallard duck and wine.
A selection of vegetables was also offered. They were new potatoes with drawn butter, spring snap beans, egg plant, snow flake potatoes, sugar corn and French peas. I doubt anyone left hungry.
I have a large collection of family cookbooks going back to 1825, but the earliest specific menu for Easter did not show up until 1901. It was in The New Orleans Times Picayune Creole Cookbook which was first published in 1901. The cookbook belonged to my grandmother who attended Newcomb College in New Orleans from 1908 to 1912.
The Creole Cookbook provided a suggested menu for breakfast, dinner and supper on Easter Sunday. The breakfast menu included: “strawberries and cream, hominy, boiled tenderloin of trout, potatoes a la Parisienne, Bacon, scrambled eggs, broiled woodcock on toast, flannel cakes, café au lait, and a copy of the Times Picayune.”
Dinner was to start with “caviares sur canapes, and include oyster soup, broiled pompano, pigeons sautes aux Champignons, roast lamb with mint sauce, green peas, cauliflower, asparagus, salad, Teal duck sur canapes, angel cake, brandied peaches, lemon pie, and fruit, nuts, raisins an Roquefort.” Supper was to be: “warmed-over lamb with celery salad and waffles with Louisiana syrup and fruit.”
The dinner table was to be decorated “with flowers, or at least some bit of green indicative not only of the resurrection of all nature, but also of the most glorious festival of the year.” A beautiful table decoration was suggested “for those who could afford it.”
The decoration was “to arrange a cut-glass bowl on a mirror and fill it with maiden-hair fern and calla lilies. Fill the center of the calla lilies with sprays of maiden-hair fern; garnish the edges of the mirror with bits of Fern and smilax, and the effect of all will be a miniature pond, with the lilies reflected within and the banks overrun with smilax.”
The description went on to say: “If this decoration is beyond your means, the home gardens are filled at this season with hyacinths, and violets, and narcissus. … A bowl of hyacinths or violets, or sprays of roses, mingled with maiden-hair fern, or even a simple bowl of smilax, young mint and rose leaf greenery, will make the table beautiful and whisper the Easter message to the heart.”
Sallie Billups’ “New Dixie Recipe Book” from 1902 was not quite so elaborate with its Easter suggestions. Its Easter recommendations began: “Let the table decorations be fresh and dainty. The dominant dish should be eggs — eggs and eggs, over again. In pagan days the use of eggs in the spring was symbolical of nature — ‘the bursting forth of life.’ With Christians, it symbolizes the resurrection.”
As to the décor of the dinner table: “White and green are the most appropriate colors for decoration. White china and pure white linen, with Easter lilies for a centerpiece, make an ideal looking table.” The different dishes to be served should be garnished with “hard-boiled eggs sliced crosswise.”
Breakfast items included: “oranges, grape-nut and cream, eggs ‘to order,’ hashed potatoes, rolls, griddle cakes with maple syrup and coffee.” Dinner was to consist of “consommé with egg-balls, roast lamb with mint sauce, greens with hard-boiled eggs. Egg and watercress salad, strawberry ice-cream and Easter cakelets with coffee.” Supper was “welch rarebit, filberts, eggs in jelly, Easter eggs, palm cakes and Russian tea.”
It was also suggested that “souvenirs” be exchanged on Easter morning. Children especially enjoyed receiving a “candy rabbit and bonbon box of speckled eggs.” The day after Easter was the day for “the rolling of the colored eggs out of doors.”
Whatever your family tradition is on Easter, enjoy it and preserve it by passing it on to the next generation.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.