When I was a child, and for many Polish Americans today, having the kiełbasa blessed by the priest was important on Holy Saturday. We ate kiełbasa year-round–with bread for lunch and kapusta for dinner or plain for snacks–but eating the blessed kiełbasa? Only on Easter Sunday. I don’t know if having the kiełbasa blessed is an expression of the Poles’ highest reverence for the Almighty (Bóg)or for the sausage itself, but the tradition does demonstrate the primary place of both God and food in Polish American family life.
Other foods are blessed for Easter, too, such as eggs (jajka) and babka (bread/cake). A container of horseradish, often with beet juice or beets, is indispensable. Dzia Dzia, as we children called our grandfather (“ja-ja”), made his horseradish fresh.
Believe me, no commercial horseradish compares to the atomic burn that would burst up my nose and scorch through my sinuses when my brother shoved the jar of Dzia Dzia’s horseradish under my nose while I was eating Easter dinner! Sometimes, we cousins would challenge each other to take long, stinging inhalations until tears puddled in our eyes.
I will never know how my grandfather’s sinuses and eyes survived the ordeal of grating the horseradish root. Perhaps the love in his cooking was a protective shield.
The baranek—butter in the shape of a lamb, often with a miniature Polish or Easter flag—is the crown of the traditional basket. The butter lambs vary in their fanciness. The supermarkets often sell the simple molded lambs. The more elaborate lambs with the curly “wool” require hours of greasy sculpting, but are works of art.
One Easter after we moved to Collingswood, my mother sent me around the corner to Mrs. D’s house with a baranek as a gift from my family. I figured that a butter lamb was obviously a butter lamb, so I handed it to Mrs. D at her door without an explanation, wished her a Happy Easter, then ran home to bite the ears off of the chocolate bunny in my Easter basket. Later, the phone rang.
“It’s butter! Why didn’t you tell me it was butter!” Mrs. D sputtered.
“Of course, it’s butter,” my mother answered. “It’s a Polish butter lamb. What did you think it was?”
“White chocolate!” Mrs. D said. “And I took a big bite of it!”
So, this Easter, do bless your kielbasa, don’t inhale the horseradish, and don’t bite the head off of the butter lamb.
That’s What Deb Said.