Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Dinner

First we eat, then we do everything else. -M.F.K. Fisher

^ My Easter feast. Plus a baked macaroni and cheese casserole that was just coming out of the oven as this photo was taken.

Let's be honest. The make-it-or-break-it moment of every great holiday is the meal.

Take Easter. As a Christian, I'm awed by the message of hope and joy that came from the empty tomb. As a resident of the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth, I rejoice in the turning of the seasons and the burst of new life that this spring holiday represents. In response to this gladful day, I happily go to worship and decorate my home with armloads of fresh flowers.

But the centerpiece of my favorite celebrations is always the meal.

Across cultures and back through time, we all share that passion, don't we? Gathering up the loved ones and feeding them the best food available - that's what we humans do when we have cause to celebrate.

^ Ham is a traditional Easter favorite, but my family does not love ham. So we opted for steak instead.

Since my little family lives far and away from the rest of the clan, I've planned, prepared and presided over a good many holiday meals. Over the past two decades, my family and I have perfected the art of the holiday meal by following these seven simple steps:

Timing is everything. For all of our holiday meals, we generally sit down at the table in mid-afternoon. Strategically, this not only gives us plenty of time for preparing the meal without any dawn wake-up calls, but also allows appetites to recover by the early evening when we all return to the fridge for a lap of leftovers.

Our menu is usually fairly simple, but everyone's preferences are represented. While I generally set the overall menu, I always canvass the group to see who wants what. I'm willing to go the extra mile to make sure the table is loaded down with everyone's favorites.

^ To create more options and add to the festive holiday fare, I also served up some roasted salmon. 
My wildflower dishes speak of springtime in the woods to me, as do little bowls of fresh strawberries and fresh cut tulips. Simple and sweet.

Presentation matters. Over the years, I've accumulated a mix-and-match collection of table linens, dinnerware, silverware, and serving pieces; my daughters and I enjoy the process of sorting through the options to create a table setting that matches to the mood of the holiday. We don't have a lot of room on our little table for centerpieces and candlesticks, but we do our best to squeeze in a few flowers or a plant to glamorize the tablescape.

Everyone helps with the cooking. Sometimes we work in shifts, other times we all pile into the kitchen at the same time and get in each others' way. One of the things that makes a holiday meal different from our usual daily dinners is that each member of the family lends a hand.

Give thanks. I don't care if you reach out to God, Buddha, the Prophet Muhammad, or Mother Earth, someone besides you deserves credit for the bounty of the meal. Taking a moment to express gratitude and appreciate the gifts of the day makes every bite taste better.

^ This year, my two eldest surprised me by peeling and chopping all the potatoes, and preparing the deviled eggs without me. And speaking of deviled eggs, here's a weird fact. For 364 days of the year, none of us have any interest in eating deviled eggs, They are just not our thing. But on Easter Sunday, we all crave them. 

Afterwards, we are all allowed to crash and burn. Oh, there's nothing quite so satisfying as giving in to post-feast sleepiness. When my daughters were babes and tots, we would take them directly from the holiday table to their cozy beds and wrestle them down for some shut-eye. Now that they are all grown up and actually like to nap, we have continued the tradition with a few hours of family down-time. Sweet heaven, I love a good holiday snooze.

Separate sessions are scheduled for dessert and leftovers. There's no need to eat too much at once. By pacing ourselves with several long breaks, we can turn a single holiday meal into a full day of feasting.

* * * * *

So whether I'm preparing a Labor Day backyard barbecue, New Year's Day brunch or Christmas dinner, these steps can be adapted for the particulars of the day at hand, and still serve to create a winning meal. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the simple secret to a great holiday.

^ Even after the pans are licked out and the dishes are done, the happy memories of this lovely Easter dinner will live on.

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