Rebirth and Babka


A glutton for holidays, this year I’ve decided to make the Great Schism (a division of the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054) work for me, and celebrate two Easters. After all, my family’s Western version (via Italy) came and went early this year—the artichoke lasagna and a grilled, butterflied leg of lamb are already just memories. The other Easter is Sunday, May 1st, and I am still waiting to be invited to the home of someone’s Greek grandmother, Romanian cousin, Ukrainian brother-in-law, or any other good cook of that persuasion.

Given that an invitation may not materialize in time, I’ve been scouting out the East Village’s offerings for my own celebration (I am faithful to food, not religion—therefore it’s not adultery). The neighborhood is home to restaurants, meat markets, bars, social clubs, and museums celebrating different Eastern European groups. A visit to Surma provides anything needed to dress an Easter table. Since antiquity, eggs have been a symbol of rebirth, the central idea of Easter. As in the Western tradition, decorated eggs (pisanki) are ubiquitous. Unlike the eggs many of us dipped in food coloring as kids, these are quite elaborate, ranging from $75 goose eggs to $7.50 wooden eggs.

Now that the mood is set, let’s focus on the eats. At Kurowycky, a meat market on First Avenue—which is also the city’s oldest smokehouse—I found a traditional Easter babka, which is braided and glazed. Inside, the bread is eggy and sweet, usually with lemon zest, raisins, and almonds, and sometimes, soft farmer’s cheese. The smell of fresh-smoked sausages is too enticing to pass up, and the butcher assures me that kielbasa is a requisite for the holiday as well. Thank God.

If I go Greek, lamb is a must, usually prepared very simply, as in Italian custom. Young lamb or “spring lamb” is a staple this time of year (which also shows up on Passover tables). The significance at Easter is based on Christ being the “lamb of God.” It is also a symbol of rebirth, since lambs are usually born in the spring. Whether you think of it as such, it is easily enjoyed in the East Village as well, at Pylos, which is serving a traditional midnight meal ($40 set price) on Saturday night. The main event: herb-crusted roast leg of lamb. Maybe I won’t cook, after all.

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