Easter Perfume – Vinegar, Horseradish and Sausage Casings

The Saturday before Easter belongs to my Grandmother. When I was young I never realized how courageous she was. She was born in Lithuania and came by herself to the United States when she was only sixteen. Her passage out of Lithuania came about through an arranged marriage with a man almost twice her age, a man she did not love. He represented her chance for a better life in a country that made dreams come true. When she got here, she immediately set out to break the arrangement and found a respectable gentleman by the name of Apolian who would “buy” her out of her contract. She fell in love with Apolian and married him. When I think about what I was like at the age of sixteen, I can’t even begin to imagine having the courage and tenacity to do what she did. Heck, I didn’t get married until I was thirty-two because I never felt mature enough for that leap. She was married at sixteen and had four children by the time she was twenty-one!

But my most cherished memory of my grandmother is the Saturday before Easter. Living in a middle class Polish and Lithuanian neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago involved many hard and fast traditions, one being how holidays were celebrated. And although Christmas was the big one, Easter had its own uniqueness. Early Easter Saturday morning the preparations for the holiday meal began. First two big pots full of eggs were put on the stove and boiled. And no respectable Easter meal with hard boiled eggs could be eaten without homemade horseradish. My grandmother would then go on the back porch, open all of the windows and begin the painful process of grating the horseradish. Now if you’ve ever made homemade horseradish you know that the fumes when you are grating the root can choke a horse. It is pretty powerful stuff the best sinus cleaning medicine around. And there she would sit, windows open, tears caused by the powerful fumes flowing down her cheeks making that delightful and pungent condiment for the hard boiled eggs.

By that time I would ramble downstairs to assist with what came next, coloring the eggs. My grandmother always used the egg coloring that came in various small bottles. You would fill up a bowl of water, put drops of the coloring in the water and mix the colors with a toothpick. Then, one by one, you would put an egg in one of the circular wire spoons and slowly move the egg around in the mixed colors. No egg came out the same but all had a wide range of colorful patterns and designs. But the most memorable part of that process was the smell of vinegar. For some reason vinegar is an ingredient used in the coloring process and when I close my eyes and remember coloring those eggs I can smell the vinegar and I can see my grandmother. It was her special Easter perfume and the memory of that has stayed with me all of my life.

Homemade bread was a must at those meals and that was made on Good Friday. The last piece of harder work was making the homemade Polish sausage. My grandmother would grind the meat, add the seasoning and the pull the sausage casings out of the refrigerator. It never occurred to me to ask what sausage casings were (and I later found out they were a collagen layer of cow intestines) but they were these slimy cylindrical things that held the sausage in a link form. I vividly remember my grandmother removing the grinding disc from the grinder, putting the opening of one end of the casing on the open end of the grinder and using her belly and a wooden spoon to push the sausage into the casing. I can see it as if it were yesterday.  Link after link being created with belly power and a wooden spoon, all for the family, all for the traditional Easter meal.

Sometimes I wonder why we remember certain things and why we forget others. I’ve never understood why but every year on the day before Easter I can see so clearly my grandmother making the sausage and I can smell so clearly the scents vinegar and the horseradish. When I was little I never realized the great gift that my grandmother was giving me, and now that I am older I thank her every year for giving me the memory of making the sausage and her special Easter perfume of horseradish and vinegar.  Happy Easter!

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