The Jug on the Counter
“You eat what for Easter Sunday breakfast?” Todd asked me that question when he came home with me for Easter once when we were first dating. I’ve told you how I grew up in a pretty religious household. My parents were devout Catholics, right down to the Pope John Paul II refrigerator magnets. There was a crucifix and a picture of Jesus or Mary in every room. When I was a kid I took them down because they got in the way of my plastering my walls with horses or whatever else I put up when I was nine. My mom was pretty upset at me for doing that. I stashed them on the shelf in the closet, not knowing what else to do with them. I just knew I didn’t want them on my walls anymore. It took her months to find them, as I had been doing my own laundry by then. She wasn’t psyched.
We went to church every Sunday morning. The mass said in Polish was at 7 AM when I was a kid; when I was a teen it went to 8 AM. But Easter was different. On Easter mass was done at sunrise, so it started at 6 AM. My parents had 5 kids, and we were all exhausted when we got into the car at 5:20 AM. Church was in Chicopee, Massachusetts, about a half hour away. I watched the sulfur glow of the lights along the sides of the highway pass as we rode up, listening to 1080 WTIC AM, the only radio station my dad would listen to.
Sometimes Daylight Savings day fell on the same day as Easter, which sucked. It meant one less hour of sleep in an already sleep deprived situation. We sat upstairs in the choir loft, because Dad sang (and still does at 80) in the choir. His voice boomed above all the others, he rocked back and forth from heel to toe. (My mom spotted me doing this when I was in a chorus concert in 8th grade too.) Sitting up in the choir loft was awesome on Easter, though. See, they used to do a parade of children carrying Easter lilies all through the church, and it was a big deal to get picked to be in the parade when you were about 8 or 9. I remember when my sister Chris was in it and she wore an old communion dress. Funny that I remember her time to be in it and not mine. At any rate, the kids carried these Easter lilies up the center aisle, then to the right and back down the right aisle, then across to the left one, and then somehow ended up going up the center aisle again. There were dozens of these kids. They positioned their lilies on the altar and went back to their parents in the pews. I got to watch this whole thing from above, which was the perfect view.
The mass lasted 2 hours, and was said entirely in Polish. I never really learned to pay attention in church, as every mass I’d been to was said in monotonous Polish that I could easily tune out. I speak it, I understand it, but when it blurs past me I can tune it out and day dream. Sometimes I dozed off and would get a gentle nudge from my mom.
After church every Sunday, and Easter was no exception, we took turns with my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side hosting Sunday breakfast. I got to hang out with my cousins every week, which was fantastic. There were 4 houses we would rotate each Sunday. And the fare was mounds of bacon, sausages, fresh bread from the bakery near the church, eggs, pastries, and vodka shots. Yes. Vodka shots. Vodka with cherry syrup was the thing. And it was a big deal when you brought a boyfriend home and Dad or one of the uncles would invite him to do one.
The fare for Easter was different, though. The week leading up to Easter my mom would bring out this ceramic jug, I think my sister Margaret made it in art class. It was terracotta colored on the outside, and all week this jug would sit on the counter with a saucer in place as a lid. We were instructed not to open it. Then on Easter Sunday the contents of it were dumped into a pot and heated. The result was a white soup called Zurek. (ZHOO-rek) It was made of bread and I don’t know what else. It was also called Blialy Barszcz, or white borscht. But the ”Barszcz” rhymed with “barf” so guess what all the kids called it. It had this sour taste with a watery consistency.
The weekend before Easter we made kielbasa. Legit homemade Polish kielbasa. Hilshire Farms and Hickory Farms can suck it. There is nothing better than legit homemade Polish kielbasa. When I was a kid my grandfather had a smoker in his basement, my Uncle Joe also had one out in his shed. My dad has one in his shed too. My mom and aunts would buy the pork by the case and cut it up, peel head after head of garlic, they got the casing—also known as deer intestine. The meat, garlic, spices would get ground up and filled into the casing. Then the kielbasa was hung on rungs in the smoker. You know it’s done when the vodka is gone.
The day before Easter the wicker basket comes out. A link of fresh kielbasa, hardboiled eggs, horseradish, bread, and salt are placed into the basket. In the school cafeteria at the church we’d gather where a priest would bless our Easter baskets. The idea is that if you eat what’s in the basket you’ll be blessed for the year.
And the contents of that basket are what went into the Zurek on Easter Sunday morning. There would also be a dish of bacon bits. The Zurek, you know, the stuff that had been fermenting in the jug on my counter all week, got ladled into bowls. Every one of the kids, me, my siblings, my cousins would line up with our bowls. Either my mom or one of the aunts would be manning the ladle. “Only one” we’d each say, and we’d pout when two were spooned into the bowl. Then we’d shovel in every manner of food item on the table to drown out the sour Zurek. I would toss in heaps of bacon bits by the spoonful, and watch the hot grease infiltrate the broth. I’d glob in hunks of kielbasa and entire hardboiled eggs. Anything to overpower the Zurek.
The bacon and its grease usually did the trick, as everything tastes better with bacon. Me and my cousins laughed as we choked down the soup, making gagging noises to annoy our parents.
Then the dishes were cleared, the cousins all went home, and the table cloth tossed into the laundry room. The clay jug was tucked into the cabinet above the fridge, to wait for next year.
added on 03.29.18