What better way to celebrate a holiday that’s centered on life and birth and hope than to use symbols that don’t merely convey life and birth and hope but that actually are products of life and birth and hope; i.e. plants?
Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ and marks the end of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting, penance, and prayer. I grew up Catholic and loved this time of year. There was a profound mix of sorrow and joy, darkness and light, solemnity and jubilation.
I also loved the rabbit-shaped chocolates and baskets of candy that were hidden for me to find. During Lent, you choose something to “give up,” so the memory that is equally vivid for me is the awareness that the intention during this time of the year was to stop, reflect, and temporarily relinquish something you loved to eat, drink, say, or do.
As I grew older, I would use it as a time to practice self-discipline and not swear, gossip, watch my favorite television shows, or smoke (yes, it’s true, and it’s a habit I have long-since ended). From a secular perspective, I saw Lent as an opportunity for self-improvement and learned that—with a little conviction—we are capable of doing whatever it is we set our minds to.
Lent Diets Throughout History
During the Middle Ages, the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs was forbidden during Lent. Then, over time, “dispensations” (exceptions) were allowed for dairy and so that became acceptable to eat during this “fasting time.” Eventually, eggs were allowed, and so they became part of the “fast.” Whereas the original idea was for Catholics to abstain from consuming animal flesh every Friday throughout the year, if a special holiday or occasion, such as a wedding, falls on a Friday, you’re exempt; you can eat meat.
Although the original doctrine was not to eat animal products at all during the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, by the time I was growing up in the 1970s, we only had to abstain on Fridays. Eating fish was acceptable. In fact, so was animal fat in liquid form; chicken broth, along with all other “liquefied” animal products, was allowed. In fact, here is what AmericanCatholic.org has to say about the rules for “abstinence” during Lent:
“Abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are not forbidden. So it is permissible to use margarine and lard. Even bacon drippings which contain little bits of meat may be poured over lettuce as seasoning.”
Although some Orthodox Christians still follow the earlier teachings to abstain from animal products altogether, clearly the bar is kept pretty low in terms of what is required of people. I’m certain that there are folks over the years who took my 30-Day Vegan Challenge during the Lenten season, or who became vegan on their own volition during Lent and decided to stick with it.
My discussion of Lent is here to illustrate that we continually pick and choose the traditions we want to uphold. We justify the consumption of turkeys on Thanksgiving, eggs at Easter, and meat during Lent on the grounds of “tradition,” even though that argument doesn’t really hold up. To authentically honor the traditions of this Christian holiday would mean to abstain from meat, dairy, and eggs entirely during Lent, but rules have been relaxed to suit people’s modern tastes and desires.
The bottom line is that our holiday foods and rituals are often symbols for something much deeper. In being attached to the form (turkeys at Thanksgiving, eggs at Passover, ‘ham’ at Easter), we risk losing the true meaning of whatever it is we are celebrating or honoring. If we uncover the meanings of these symbols, we will find that a plant-based menu better reflects the values and significance of these holidays.
For instance, the Easter eggs we boiled and colored as children represented something deeper. Eggs signify the hope that life follows death, that spring follows winter, that hope follows despair. That’s the point: the egg is the symbol of these ideas, but we have come to put more weight on the symbol rather than on its meaning. And for the hens whose reproductive cycles are exploited for this symbol, there is no life. There is no hope.
Individual Americans consume about 250 chicken eggs each year, and to keep this consumption steady, the egg industry currently confines over 330 million hens, according to these reports. With ad campaigns romantically touting the nutritional benefits of what the egg industry calls “nature’s perfect food,” egg consumption is on the rise.
Labels such as “organic, “cage-free,” or “free-range” are effective marketing terms, but they mean very little to the birds themselves. Like all females (including humans), the reproductive cycles of hens slow down over time and eventually hens stop producing eggs. No longer “valuable” to the egg industry (large, small, organic, or free-range), all “unproductive” hens are sold to the meat industry and are killed to be used for “lower-grade” products such as canned soup or frozen pot pies. Most birds in operations labeled “humane” are still confined and crowded indoors, many are debeaked, and most come from the same hatcheries that kill over 250 million newly hatched male chicks each year in ways that make horror movies seem like Romantic Comedies.
This is all very different from what we envision this spring holiday to be about, but we can still experience the meaning of this holiday without compromising our values.
We can still use the egg as a symbol for life, birth, and hope, but instead paint wooden, ceramic, or papier mậché eggs that can be cherished each year as decoration. Or, fill plastic eggs with treats for children and hide them at Easter Egg hunts; the plastic eggs can be re-used each year. No waste. No suffering.
When I reflect on the Easter Egg Hunts I loved as a child, it wasn’t the eggs themselves (or the dairy-based chocolate candy) as much as the fact that it was a community event with friends and family—and all the children were tasked with a quest to find what was hidden just for us. That excitement isn’t lessened because animal products aren’t used.
A more consistent—and compassionate—symbol for spring would be a flower bulb, or vegetable seeds, or a tree. In fact, they are more than just a symbol in that they really do hold (and deliver!) the promise of a flower or vegetables or leaves and fruit. What better way for our children to understand the processes of nature—that with tenderness, attention, and water—there is a beautiful (and even edible) outcome.
Celebrate the foods of the season and create your menu around arugula, asparagus, basil, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, corn, fava beans, grapefruit, green onions, leeks, lemons, lettuce, limes, mint, nettles, new potatoes, parsnips, pea greens, peppers, radicchio, spinach, spring greens, and watercress. (See recipes below.)
Many vegan chocolatiers sell chocolate bunnies, chocolate eggs, and other candy we associate with Easter baskets this time of year.
Eggs In Passover
Of course, Easter and Lent are not the only religious observances that fall in the beginning of spring. Passover (Pesach) is a Jewish festival that commemorates the exodus of Jews out of Egypt and thus from slavery to freedom. The central ritual of Passover is a special dinner called a Seder, the etymology of which is derived from the Hebrew word for “order,” referring to the specific order of the ritual meal itself.
Each food and beverage chosen for the meal represents an element of the narrative told in Exodus in the Bible and represents the very significant journey to freedom. For instance, leavened foods are not eaten because when fleeing Egypt, the Jews wouldn’t have had time to allow their dough to rise, so the only acceptable bread is made from matzo and is used to make everything from cakes and cookies (matzo flour), bread crumbs (matzo meal), and bread itself (in the form of full-sized matzos).
The six symbolic foods on the Seder Plate play an important role, since they’re used to recount the story of the exodus, but like Easter eggs representing renewal and rebirth, these Seder foods stand for something else. They convey the elements of the powerful message of Passover: that freedom is possible, that slavery can end, and that the future can be better than the past or the present. Although many plant foods are traditionally part of the dinner, a few animal products are also used as symbols, though plant foods can be used in those cases just as well:
Fruit (both dried and fresh), along with nuts and sweet spices are soaked in wine resulting in a flavorful dish called Charoset (or Haroset), representing the mortar that Jews worked with when they were enslaved by the Egyptians.
Bitter herbs represent the harshness of slavery. Ashkenazi Jews tend to use horseradish or the bitter-tasting heart of romaine lettuce; Sephardic Jews often use celery leaves, green onion, or parsley.
A vegetable other than bitter herbs are dipped in saltwater to signify the slaves’ tears.
A boiled egg—a symbol of fertility and new life—is replaced at vegan Seders with roasted nuts, a flower, or a small white egg-sized eggplant. Same symbolic meaning. No suffering for anyone.
The only meat on the Seder plate is the “shankbone” of a lamb or goat (or the neck or wing of a chicken) and is meant to represent the lamb that was offered for sacrifice. Jewish vegans use roasted beets, expressly allowed by the Talmud, or a sweet potato.
What better way to celebrate the freedom from slavery than to use symbols that not merely convey compassion, freedom, and liberation but that actually are products of compassion, freedom, and liberation; i.e. plants? Certainly, the animals themselves—the victims of our appetites—would have us include them in our circle of compassion. Like us, they want to live. If they have wings, they want to fly. If they have legs, they want to walk. If they have voices, they want to communicate. If they have offspring, they want to nurture them.
To center our holiday meals on foods that give life rather than take life is in keeping with the values we hold and the ideals we are celebrating. With a little creativity and a lot of sensitivity, we will find that we can indeed adhere to traditions while honoring our values. We need not sacrifice one for the other.
Saffron Risotto with Mushrooms
Saffron threads are actually the stigma of the Crocus flower (crocus is Latin for “saffron.”) Saffron tends to be expensive because it takes thousands of flowers to get just one ounce of threads. Though you can find a lower/cheaper grade, it’s worth getting the good stuff; besides, a little goes a long way, so you can make it last. Yield: 4 servings
7 to 8 cups vegetable stock
1 tablespoon oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups mushrooms, sliced or coarsely chopped (cremini, shitake, or porcini)
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine*
1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Heat the vegetable stock in a medium saucepan, and keep it warm on the stove.
Heat the oil in a deep, large sauté pan over medium-low heat, and sauté the onion, garlic, and mushrooms until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add a little water to the pan if the mushrooms soak up the oil too quickly before they’re cooked.
Add the rice and stir for a few moments to toast it slightly. Add the white wine*, and stir as the alcohol evaporates, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Add a ladle of the stock, and, while stirring, let the rice absorb it. Continue to add more stock, ladle by ladle, waiting for each addition to be absorbed by the rice before adding any more. Stir constantly. As the rice cooks, the risotto will start to thicken up.
Halfway through cooking, dissolve the saffron in a little stock in a small bowl, and add it to the cooking rice.
Continue adding more stock until you are happy with the consistency (you may not need all of the stock). It should take about 20 to 25 minutes.
When the rice is bright yellow and done al dente, turn off the heat, and salt to taste. Stir the rice well with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are blended thoroughly and the risotto is smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in the parsley, and serve right away.
*The wine provides a nice balance to the stock and in risotto. It also provides some acidity. To replace the wine, use 2-3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar.
*Choose whole saffron threads over powdered saffron. The threads have a better flavor and the curative qualities are higher. Store saffron in an airtight container in a dark, cool place.
*The flavor of saffron is better distributed when the threads are first dissolved in warm water rather than added directly to foods, but use it sparingly. Too much can produce a bitter taste.
*Saffron Risotto is also known as or Risotto ala Milanese
From Color Me Vegan by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Reprinted with Permission. Copyright 2020
Pan-Fried (or Roasted) Asparagus with Lime Juice
You know it’s spring when it’s Asparagus season! This is the perfect (and most colorful) accompaniment to the Saffron Risotto. Yield: 2 servings
1 teaspoon nondairy butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium shallot, minced
1 bunch fresh asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed
Juice from 1/4 of a lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter with olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in garlic and shallots, and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in asparagus spears; cook until bright green and tender, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Squeeze lime juice over hot asparagus, and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving plate, and garnish with lime wedges.
Lemon Bundt Cake with Lemon Sauce
A lovely cake that cries out to be served at a tea party or spring celebration, you can also pour this batter into muffin tins.
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
Zest of 2 lemons, minced
2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup canola oil or equivalent melted nondairy butter
1/2 cup plant-based milk
1 tablespoon lemon extract
1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Lightly oil a Bundt pan.
Into a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest until well combined.
In a food processor or in a bowl using an electric hand mixer, combine the egg replacement powder and water and blend well for about 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice, maple syrup, canola oil, milk, lemon, and vanilla extracts, and blend again for another minute.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and pulls away from the edges of the pan. Let cool completely before unmolding. Serve with Light Lemon Sauce below.
Yield: One Bundt cake
Enjoy this simple sauce on the Light Lemon Bundt Cake or even on gingerbread cake or muffins.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup boiling water
Juice from 2 lemons
Zest from 2 lemons
In a large saucepan, stir together the sugar and cornstarch. Gradually stir in the boiling water, and simmer over low heat until thick, stirring occasionally. Stir in the lemon zest and lemon juice, and remove from heat. Serve warm or room temperature over cake.
Yield: 1 cup
*Essay originally appeared in The 30-Day Vegan Challenge by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Reprinted here with permission.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is an author whose topics include animal agriculture, animal protection, and plant-based eating. She has written seven books, is a regular contributor to National Public Radio and LiveKindly, and has published letters and commentaries in The New York Times, The Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor.