Symbolism and Food

In my youth, I attended Methodist confirmation classes. These classes were religious classes that taught us not only about our own religion, Methodism, but as part of the curriculum we learned about other faiths as well. This curriculum was developed to better understand religion as a whole and why different religions eat different foods, pray different prayers and have different rituals. The objective in studying other religions was realized when many similarities became apparent and, through this awareness, a form of respectful tolerance began to root and grow. One of the ways we studied other religions was through food. We prepared and served a Seder dinner for our church. It is now 40 years later and needing a refresher on the Passover Seder, I was lucky enough to talk with Rabbi Peter Hyman from the Temple B’Nai Israel in Easton.

In the spring, Passover and Easter often fall in the same span of time and both have symbolic features to their celebrations. Passover is a celebration of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The Seder plate tells of the Exodus through food, each item a symbol of the story. These are the foods found on a Seder plate:

Karpas: A green vegetable, such as parsley or celery. This symbolizes spring.

Maror: A bitter herb, such as horseradish or endive. This symbolizes the bitterness of the slave experience.

Charoset: A mixture of nuts, raisins and honey. This symbolizes the mortar the slaves used to build the pharaoh’s cities.

Zeroah: A roasted shank bone of a lamb or a turkey neck. This symbolizes sacrifice in which the blood of a lamb was put on the front of a house so the angel of death could distinguish between the Israelites and the Egyptians.

Baytzah: A roasted egg. This symbolizes rebirth.

During Passover, Jewish people refrain from eating leavened bread. This symbolizes the Exodus in which the Israelites didn’t have time to let the bread rise. Matzo, the unleavened bread is also called “the bread of affliction,” meaning slavery.

Christians have their celebration of Easter in the spring and also have symbolic foods. The most recognized symbol of Easter is the Easter egg. The egg is a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and new life. Hot Cross Buns are traditionally eaten the week leading up to Easter. Legend has it that a 12th century monk was the first person to bake the buns on Good Friday and mark the bun with a cross. Their popularity in England grew to make it a symbol of the holiday weekend, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine. Another delicious symbol of Easter, perhaps more popular in England than here, is the Easter Simnel Cake, a light fruitcake decorated with 11 marzipan balls on top to represent the disciples minus Judas.

In my discussion with Rabbi Hyman, he said that culture was defined by three things: language, clothes and food. After much reflection, I believe this mostly holds true, however when it comes to food, we are often more alike than we are different. There are crossover foods between cultures and religions like the egg, which has shared symbolism.

Passover and Easter aren’t the only religious holidays that use food to tell a story:

Latkes at Hanukkah fried in hot oil are symbolic of the oil that was enough for only one day but actually lasted for eight.

Kutia is a Ukranian dish made from wheat berries, poppy seed, dried fruit and honey and served on Christmas Eve. It is the first dish of a 12-dish vegetarian feast to commemorate the 12 apostles.

Bahn Chung is a cherished rice cake enjoyed during the Vietnamese New Year, also known as Tet. This dish, made of sticky rice, mung beans, pork, green onions, fish sauce and spice is placed on family alters to pay tribute to ancestors and give praise for the new year.

Where there is an event, there is often family, friends and food. Religious or not, during these gatherings we come to look forward to certain items we only get once or twice a year. Maybe there is a dish that your aunt only makes at Thanksgiving or a favorite dish that is always at a church potluck supper. For my family there are food symbols throughout the year to look forward to like watermelon on the 4th of July, Miss Louise’s onion sandwiches at our family reunions, and fried chicken on a boat ride.

This brings up the question: is this comfort food? Comfort food is a food category that often includes items like a casserole, chicken noodle soup, mac and cheese, and meatloaf with mashed potatoes. But I believe there are other comfort foods in our lives we may not always realize bring us a sense of contentment. While there’s nothing scientific about my musings on comfort food, my gut tells me this, if a food makes you smile, there’s a story behind it that brings you comfort.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Resources and Readings

Simnal Cake:

Friedland, Susan. The Passover Table. Harper Collins Publishers. 1994.

Naturally Dyed Easter Eggs

For each quart of boiled water, add 2 TBS vinegar. 1 Qt. per color.

Light pink: 4 cups chopped beets simmered. Strain. Let eggs sit for 30 min.

Yellow: 3 TBS turmeric simmered for 30 min. Cool, then soak eggs.

Light blue: use 3 cups chopped purple cabbage, simmer 30 min. Then soak eggs overnight in fridge.

Turmeric, beets and purple cabbage can be used to dye Easter eggs naturally. Photograph courtesy of Cathy Schmidt.

Easter Simnel Cake

1 cup margarine, softened

1 cup light brown sugar

4 eggs (chicken or duck)

1 3/4 cups flour

1 3/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 cups golden raisins

3/4 cup of dark raisins

3/4 cup candied cherries, any color, rough chop

1/2 cup mixed candied citrus peel, rough chop

Zest of one lemon

1 1/2 tsp lemon extract

1 tsp cardamom

1/2 tsp cloves

1/2 tsp allspice

1 pound marzipan

2 TBS apricot jam

1 beaten egg

Preheat oven to 300. Grease an 8-inch springform pan. In large mixing bowl cream together margarine and brown sugar, then beat in eggs one at a time. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, baking powder, fruits and spices. Once combined put 1/2 the batter in the pan. Then divide the 1 pound of marzipan into thirds. Roll out 1/3 into a circle to fit the cake pan. Put the remaining cake batter on top and cook at 300 for 2 hours. After 2 hours check every 5 minutes to see if it is done using a wooden skewer. Once done, let cool and then turn out onto wire rack. Once it is completely cooled, roll out another 1/3 of the marzipan. Brush the cake with the apricot jam and then place the marzipan circle on top. Use the remaining marzipan to roll 11 balls. Brush the top of the marzipan with the beaten egg and place the 11 balls evenly on the cake. Brush the balls with egg. Set under hot broiler for just 1-2 minutes, until browned. Remove and cool. Decorate with edible spring flowers. Gluten free all-purpose flour can be used in this recipe.

Another delicious symbol of Easter is the Easter Simnel Cake, a light fruitcake decorated with 11 marzipan balls on top to represent the disciples minus Judas. Photograph courtesy of Cathy Schmidt.
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