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At Easter, a tradition continues

by Brian Clarey

The Easter spread awaits consumption at the Clarey household on Sunday. (photo by Brian Clarey)

Mom got the ham in the oven at 8 a.m. “It’s a Smithfield ham,” she kept saying. “I forgot you had to cook those.”

The ham had been the subject of much discussion between my mother and me of late. Spiral-sliced, smoked, natural cut, glazed or rubbed or with a natural rind. There was even some debate as to whether we needed the ham at all, but when my mother and I found out we’d be cooking for 20 people at Easter, the matter of a ham was settled.

There would be turkey, too, it was decided, and Mom got that going after the ham had three hours to cook down in the hot oven.

Then I moved in while she distracted the children, a short list in hand of my responsibilities for the day’s meal.

Roasted asparagus. Gravy. Stuffing, because my youngest son loves it. This killer dip with vegetable soup mix and clams, to be paired with Fritos. Beans, vegetarian style. And, of course, like 40 pounds of animal carcass.

Our Italian heritage dictates that the food never runs out, not if we can help it. And for the last five years or so, my mother and I, bolstered with the culinary contributions of other friends and family, have been able to muster abundance.

Easter is a big deal in families like ours — Catholic, of Irish and Italian ancestry and with roots in the Northeast. When I was a child we’d sometimes celebrate with my father’s family in Albany, NY, sometimes with my mother’s expansive Italian clan in New Jersey, sometimes just at home with the immediate family. But we always began the day with the plundering of Easter baskets followed by a nauseous ride to church, where I’d struggle to keep my ration of jellybeans down.

Someone, usually my great-grandmother, would bake a ricotta pie — a rich Italian cheesecake with delicate hints of citrus, that I am still unable to stomach to this day.

We ate lamb on Easter when I was a kid, I remember, or sometimes pork roast. My wife would never deign to consume either, so over the years we’ve done salmon, filet mignon and stuffed shells with marinara sauce. The turkey and ham compromise came to be after the growing guest list topped a dozen; now these too have become a tradition.

Easter in my house is no longer strictly a family affair. Though we’re fortunate enough to have a few blood relatives able to join the celebration, we avidly collect holiday orphans — families and individuals without plans on Easter Sunday — to introduce to the mix.

There’s generally beer and wine and maybe some cubed cheese while we roll in the kitchen and the guests arrive laden with the edible legacies of their own traditions: black-eyed peas with corn, sweet pickles, deviled eggs, new potatoes, any and all manner of casserole. From the communal prep space these offerings go to the Easter table, one by one, until all the real estate is spoken for.

We’ve added another tradition: a hundred or so plastic eggs stuffed with coins or candy and concealed around the yard, with a coveted Golden egg containing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln worth five bucks. The kids burn off the last of the morning sugar rush while the adults mingle in the springtime air.

Then we eat, of course, a sprawling meal that can take hours — or, at least, until the end of the second televised game of the day.

There are no more ricotta pies at Easter in my family, which is fine with me. This year’s most talked about dessert was a Kentucky Derby pie, loaded with custard and chocolate chips, brought by my cousin’s boyfriend’s mother Brenda.

I hope she comes back next year.

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