Detroit Journal: A Babushka Easter

I always ended up with garlic breath after digging into my Easter basket as a kid.

That’s because unlike American-style baskets, which were filled with chocolate bunnies and jelly beans, mine had a distinctly Polish flavor.

My Polish grandmother, whose day job was running a little bar for Detroit factory workers on Michigan Avenue, always put together my Easter goodies. They came in a plain brown basket that held a large kielbasa, a loaf of pumpernickel bread, a jar of honey, some hard-boiled eggs dyed in pastel colors and just two pieces of candy – tiny eggs with a hard shell and a marshmallow filling.

She presented it to me on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, shortly before the neighborhood procession would begin to St. Cunegunda Church for the annual blessing of the Easter baskets. These were filled with the elements of a full Polish meal, including wine and butter molded into the shape of lambs.

The baskets would be left outside of the long rows of pews along the main aisle leading up to the altar, where a giant mosaic of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus stared at the faithful with outstretched arms.

grandma and me easter
Grandma and me, Easter 1960 at her house on St. Lawrence Street in Detroit.

 

At the appointed time, the priest and the altar boys entered the back of the church with a bucket of holy water and an aspergillum (a silver ball on a stick used for sprinkling the water). Babushka-clad women who had fought for a seat along the main aisle would whip off the white linen napkins covering the baskets and wait for what my cousins Lenny and Denny called the “Kowalski baptism,” a sacrilegious reference to the local sausage company.

I’m sure the local Episcopalian and Congregational churches were filled with the fragrance of lilies and hyacinths on Easter, but my church smelled of freshly baked bread and spicy meat on Easter weekend. Once blessed, the contents of the baskets were quickly consumed. I always ate the kielbasa cold without a knife or fork on the way out of church, savoring every bite.

Years later, when I was a newlywed, my father-in-law Bob Lienert would often visit and sit in the kitchen while I made dinner. He once asked me what kind of food I expected to be served in heaven.

I didn’t have a ready answer.  “What do you think they’ll serve up there?” I asked him. Would it be along the lines of the folk song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” where there would be “a lake of stew and of ginger ale, too, and you can paddle all around it in a big canoe”?

It was simpler than that.

“It will be my mother’s spice cake,” he declared.

Not an unexpected answer from a lifelong diabetic who was forced to pass up sweets and carefully monitored his diet. He later wrote about the cake in an essay called “My Mother’s Way,” in his memoir about growing up in Nebraska during the Great Depression.

Unfortunately, his mother left no recipe.

“She would list ingredients by name for anyone who asked,” he wrote. “When they would ask ‘how much’ of this or of that, she’d look surprised and say, ‘why, enough!’”

I never tried to recreate that cake recipe and I did not carry on the tradition of the Polish Easter basket for my kids or granddaughter. It was all Cadbury eggs and Jelly Bellies.

Sitting on my kitchen table today is an Easter basket for my granddaughter Eleanor that has a Sesame Street theme and no kielbasa. St. Cunegunda is still open, but there are fewer Polish parishioners and its Facebook page lists the times for the Stations of the Cross, but no Easter basket blessing ceremony.

Still, I think about grandma at this time of year and the Bible verse about heaven where Jesus says: “in my Father’s house are many rooms.”  Surely, one of those contains a kitchen where they’re busy preparing Polish sausages and butter lambs for Easter baskets.

 

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