Tag Archive for: food traditions

Celebrating Indigenous Foods of the Americas for Thanksgiving

Celebrating the History of Halloween

Celebrating Preserving the Harvest

Old fashioned dinner pail

Celebrating Back to School

Celebrating America’s Birthday

edible flowers display

Celebrating Edible Flowers

Celebrating Spring

Dandelion Seeds

Honoring the Rebirth of Plants & Animals

By Antonia Demas, PhD

Spring is the season when the earth warms up and comes alive again after the cold of winter when few plants grow.  In the Northern Hemisphere spring begins on the vernal (or spring) equinox on or around March 20 – 23. In the Southern Hemisphere spring begins on the autumnal equinox on or around September 20 – 23. This happens all over the world each year and the two Hemispheres flip their onset of spring and fall every six months. The equinox happens only twice each year and is marked by equal hours of day and equal hours of night (12 hours each). The word “equinox” means “equal night” and it occurs when the sun crosses the equator to join the other hemisphere only twice a year. The exact date is within a couple days depending on the exact time this occurs.

Celtic and Roman Roots

In the ancient world, the Celts and Romans divided the calendar into two seasons – one of darkness lasting six months when the earth goes to sleep and the other of lightness when the earth comes alive again for six months. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. The equinoxes fall in the middle of the solstices when day and night are equal in length at the equator.

Celtic Beginnings

The world to the ancient Celts was divided into two seasons – Samhain, a six-month period marked by darkness and death, and Beltane, six months of light and renewed life. Samhain was a harvest festival, and a time to recognize and fear the dead and predict the future. Beltane marked the time that crops were planted, and the earth and its inhabitants were fertile again. Beltane was a fertility festival celebrated on May Day, to rejoice in the planting of crops and new life being formed in both animals and plants.

We have expanded past interpretations about agricultural cycles to include our own observations about climate, geography, and nature, but remnants from past beliefs remain despite the fact that our previous close connection to the natural world is no longer our primary focus as fewer people grow their own food or are deeply connected with the natural world. There are rich cultural traditions associated with these two seasons, based on food and agricultural themes, some of which are still celebrated though commercialism has obscured much of their former meaning and celebration of fertility and harvest. 

The Druids, who were the Celtic priests, worshipped trees and the oak tree was particularly sacred to them. They prayed to the oak tree for sunshine, rain, and a fertile earth. It was thought that the tree’s spirit could bring life to people just as it did for itself by putting out fresh green leaves each spring. Trees would be cut down and brought to the center of the village or to the villager’s houses to worship. A tall straight tree would be cut and carried around the town where it brought luck to all of the houses. It would then be placed in the center of the village where the people danced around it and honored it. Out of this practice came the May Pole as we know it. Branches of trees were cut and brought into homes, hung in windows and doorways as a sign of protection and good luck. 

Sunflower seed bread in the shape of the sun to honor Beltane made by Antonia Demas

May Day signified the release of the sun god, Beltane, who had been held prisoner by the evil spirits of cold and darkness. On May 1, Beltane escaped from the cold and the earth came to life again, for a period of six months. No longer was Samhain the ruler. 

To help Beltane escape, people would build huge bonfires at dawn on the highest hills in the villages. It was believed that the fires would frighten the evil spirits and force them to free the sun. The fires would also warm the sun so that its power could be greater and spring would come faster. The burning of fields just before planting time, would help to ensure a fertile soil and the weeds would be destroyed in the process. Embers would be scattered on the fields to help the earth produce a good crop [1] (Helfman, 1969;66).

Roman and Christian Adaptations 

The great bonfires made by the ancient Celts continued to be built when the Romans occupied the land. People danced around the Beltane fires in a circle following the same direction the sun travelled as it moved across the sky. They would leap as high as they could to indicate how tall they wanted their grain to grow. In addition, fires were started in masses of shrubs called gorse. This was done to scare away witches who were thought to hide in shrubbery and hedgerows. Skin drums were beaten and horns blown to aid in scaring away the witches and evil forces. 

Morris dancers in the Middle Ages would stomp the ground to reawaken the earth. Horns, whistles and bells woke up the sleeping spirits of the fields and forests. Tin trumpets or cow horns were blown beginning at daybreak. 

Large circular oatmeal cakes were baked to represent the solar symbol. These cakes were rolled down a hillside and then divided among those present at a ritual. 

Flora

The Romans had a spring goddess, Flora, whom they worshipped as early as 238 B.C. when they built a temple in her honor. Celebrations known as Floralia merged with the Celtic festival. Flora was the goddess of flowers who was responsible for making them bloom. Ovid credits these words to Flora:

“Perhaps you may think that I am queen only of dainty garlands, but my divinity has to do also with the tilled fields. If the crops have blossomed well, the threshing-floor will be piled high [2] (Henig 1984:30).

Flora, in Roman religion, was the goddess who made it possible for flowers to bloom so they would thrive, grow, reproduce and produce food. Flowers were so important to the Romans that they inspired a goddess to provide for them and stand as their champion against drought and disease.

The first Floralia was a movable feast whose annual date depended upon the progress of the crops and flowers. 173 B.C. was a year of unseasonable weather with a delay in blossoming. The Roman senate made arrangements for celebration and declared Floralia an annual festival to take place from April 28 – May 3. 

Flowers were seen as the sex organs of plants and Flora was queen of all plants, including edible ones. Female bodies were especially honored at the Floralia and it became known as a festival of nude women until the 3rd century A.D., when Roman authorities grew prudish and demanded garments. The Floralia was a time for public love-making which at other times was forbidden by authorities. It was the only time of year when all classes were considered equal and no work was done by the slaves. Indeed, the slaves were allowed to say and do as they pleased during the festival, but only if they returned to their masters home in the evening. 

Romans called Flora the secret patron of Rome without whose help the city would die. She was the patron of prostitutes and was worshipped in public orgies. It was presumed that the best way to honor Flora was to “pass obscene medallions around, scatter beans and lupines, and make love to passerby” [3] (Monghan 1981:109).

There were feasts, parades, dancing, sport events and plays in her honor. The young men would race to see who could be the first to place a wreath of flowers on Flora’s statue. The winner would receive good luck all year. Foot races among women took place continuously. Licentious dramatic productions and indecent farces would be held especially at the Temple of Flora in Rome. The Floralia was a time which symbolized the flowering of all nature, including human nature. 

Children made small statues of Flora and decorated them with flowers to bring to the Temple of Flora as offerings. This custom was adapted by Christian children who would make “May dolls” which were crude replicas of the Virgin Mary. It is interesting to note that many of the celebrations that began as pagan nature worship could not be eroded when Christianity took hold so the Christians assigned their own symbols and meanings to them.

The Beltane festival and Floralia were fertility and harvest celebrations, taken seriously as a way to keep the earth warm, safe, and productive. When the Puritans came to a position of influence they abolished the Beltane holiday in 1644, and referred to May Poles as “stinking Idols brought from the wood” [4] Price 1954:89). 

May Day became a day to honor the worker in much of Europe, much like Labor Day in the United States. Parades were held and people would have the day off work. 

Green was the color featured in spring decorations as a symbol of re-birth and renewal. The foods of May Day are often green containing chlorophyl which helps plants create energy from the sun by making simple sugars and releasing oxygen. This is the time of year when the fresh greens are first ready to be eaten, a welcome relief from the monotony of a winter diet. A beautiful spring salad full of color and flavor is a wonderful way to start the spring season.

Foods of Spring

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Spring Foods

The first foods of spring tend to have a slightly astringent bitter flavor which is an excellent way to clean out your gut after not having regular access to fresh clean green foods all winter. Just as many people feel compelled to clean and air out their homes after a long winter for a fresh start, so too does nature provide our digestive systems with clean fresh foods after a period when few are readily available growing in your home environment. Spring cleaning has been a tradition in many cultures to mark the beginning of a new season and remove the cobwebs from the house and welcome the fresh green foods to the body. 

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Spring Cleaning

The following list contains foods associated with spring. When you consume them, they will serve as a spring tonic so you can start the spring season with a clean digestive system: dandelion root, greens, & flowers, rhubarb, asparagus, artichoke, sorrel, violets, purslane, spinach, arugula, radish, cherries, strawberries, peas, ramps, and scallions.

Dandelions, the Unsung Hero of the Garden and Table

Dandelion

One of the first green plants to raise it pretty leaves in the spring is the ubiquitous dandelion. Named for its jagged leaves that resemble lion’s teeth the more one learns about this wondrous plant, the more one appreciates it.

Filled with vitamins and minerals, the entire plant can be consumed, each part having a different flavor. Dandelions have a tap root which not only aerates the soil but can reach depths that go deeper in the soil where more nutrients are contained that aren’t available to plants with shallow root systems. The tap root anchors the plant in the soil so it can withstand winds or disruptions more easily. Furthermore, the tap root can be washed (peeled if woody), chopped, and roasted for a delicious slightly bitter coffee that does not contain caffeine or additives. A recipe for dandelion root coffee appears below.

Dandelion leaves are easy to harvest but should be gathered when young because they contain less bitterness and if picked in the wild or from a yard, make sure they have not been sprayed with chemicals and are free from dog urine. If collected from an uncultivated area, make sure they are well washed before steaming or putting in salads.

The lovely yellow flowers can be eaten raw in salad or made into a tea or wine. Once their flowers fade, they turn into glorious seed balls that will plant themselves by blowing in the wind and landing in random places. It was not until suburban lawns became popular that the dandelion became the bane of many homeowners. I believe that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that dandelions are the gift that keeps on giving. When one looks at dandelions objectively, they are good for the soil, all parts of the plant can be eaten, usually they are free, are beautiful to look at, and replant themselves throughout the growing season lasting until fall. They also grow well without chemicals.

Edible Dandelion Leaves, Roots, and Flowers

Dandelion Coffee and Tea

To make dandelion root coffee, dig up the tap roots, wash well, chop into small pieces and gently roast in a 250-degree oven for about 20 minutes until tender. Let cool and then grind in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Steep in a French Press or in water and pour through a sieve. The addition of cinnamon, cloves, or other spices along with plant-based milks will result in a delicious drink that does not contain caffeine.

 Roasted dandelion root coffee ground in mortar and pestle with cinnamon
Dandelion root coffee

Dandelion flowers can be steeped in water to make tea. The leaves of dandelion can be steamed for a highly nutritious green that can be eaten with other greens or on their own. Top with chopped chives and lemon juice.

Eggs as Symbol of Spring and Rebirth

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Ukrainian Eggs made by Antonia Demas

Another harbinger of spring is the return of migrating birds. When wild birds return in spring, they find a safe place to build their nests so they can raise their families out of harm’s way. It has always been a joy and wonderment to watch birds build their nests, lay their eggs, watch the babies hatch out of their protective shells, be fed by their tireless parents, and then become fledglings and fly away. People have had a long-term fascination with eggs as a symbol of new life encased in a perfect package.

Pysanka – the art of Ukrainian eggs

The Ukrainian people along with many other cultures have been decorating eggs for hundreds of years to celebrate the hope of the new season when the earth wakes up from its long winter sleep and the birds return to continue the life cycle.

The Ukrainian egg decorating tradition began as pagan nature worship and has continued over the centuries as an ongoing exquisite art form. Usually, the eggs decorated are not fertilized nor eaten. A batik-like process of drawing on the raw eggshell with hot bee’s wax and a special tool called a kistka (meaning to write) and then immersing the egg in natural dyes ensues starting with light colors and progressing to dark colors until the egg is fully decorated. The bee’s wax is then melted off and the vibrant colors are revealed. Traditional symbols from nature and geometric designs cover the entire egg in symmetrical repeating patterns. 

After reading an article about Ukrainian eggs in National Geographic I have been making Ukrainian eggs for decades. This year is especially important as the Ukraine is engaged in war and their belief about the future of the world depending on this tradition is especially important. Attached are eggs I made this year in honor of the Ukrainians and peace. Now that the spring season has arrived, it is my hope that the foods of spring will help nourish Ukrainians and people everywhere. My motto has become, “Make eggs, not war.” Ukrainians Believe that the future of the world depends on making eggs each year. Let’s do our part!

Brief Summary of Ukrainian Egg History

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Happy Spring!

Citations

[1] Helfman, Elizabeth S., Celebrating Nature, Rites, and Ceremonies Around the World, The Seabury Press, N.Y. 1969;66.

[2] Henig, Martin, Religion in Roman Britain, St. Martin’s Press, N.Y. 1964.

[3] Monaghan, Patricia, Book of Goddesses and Heroines, E. P. Dutton, N.Y. 1981.

[4] Price, Nancy, Pagan Progress, Museum Press, Limited, London, 1954.

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Bowl of edible spring violets

Food is Good to Think Blog

Welcome to the “Food is Good to Think” blog! The title of the blog is a quote from the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. This quote is the framework for the Food is Elementary curriculum and the work of the Food Studies Institute. We love this quote because food is fascinating to think about as it can be related to almost any topic, and food nourishes the body and mind which enables us to think.

In keeping with our goal to educate the public about healthy eating and the history of culinary traditions, the purpose of this blog is to provide free information, recipes, how-to videos, and fun cooking activities for people of all ages to learn how various traditions and beliefs about food have evolved over time and remain today.

We welcome your feedback, photos of recipes from the blog that you prepare, and tax-deductible donations to the Food Studies Institute. Email your photos to ariel@foodstudies.org and we will post them on the blog for others to see. Please feel free to share this blog with those who you think will enjoy engaging in these activities.