Lenten Customs ancient and new (March 31, 2011)

Some of my friends have great gifts for flavoring feast days, adding new ingredients to ancient customs and traditions.

Mary Tierney is one of these good buddies who can be counted on to add an inspired touch to the festal observances that unfold annually in her home in Rutherford.

All designed with children in mind – she and her late husband Michael are the parents of four – the activities she creates are meant to draw young people into observances in a family setting and in a very personal way.

Each year, I take inspiration myself from all her creations, particularly the feast for the soul and senses that is Mary’s Easter season extravaganza.

This ongoing observance begins late Holy Thursday night when she constructs a “tomb” out of Lego blocks. On Good Friday afternoon, the soft sculpture of Jesus she made years ago when the kids were just toddlers, is taken by the family with great reverence to this “tomb” and placed inside.

There it remains until very early Easter morning when Mary scoots down the steps before the young folks awake, kicks away the blocks that sealed off the opening and brings out the soft sculpture of Jesus who usually appears first on one of several fireplace mantels in the big, old house.

Only after they’ve appreciated the resurrected Lord, do the kids’ thoughts turn to eggs and baskets.

Throughout the Easter season, the soft sculpture Jesus appears in different locations around the Tierney house as the whole family focus becomes post-Resurrection. On Ascension Thursday – May 17 this year – this focus galvanizes as she employs her own take on a very old European custom.

She harnesses the small, handmade figure of Christ to a rope like one of those child-angels which float over the crowds on Italian feast days in some cities. Standing at the top of the stairs, she raises it up to the second floor, a contemporary homage to the days when statues of Christ were elevated through church roofs by way of openings created especially for this holy day.

The kids, all teenagers now, have come to regard the event as a family treasure, part of their heritage and a gift from a loving mother. I quite agree with them.

While Mary goes for the theatrical approach to feast days, I’m more apt to turn toward the culinary.

I love to research foods connected with our feast days around the world and see if there are ways to bring them to my own table.

The food history of the Feast of the Ascension lends itself well to this approach. An Internet search revealed that since earliest times, food customs were connected with the liturgy of this feast. Beans, grapes and the first fruits of the spring harvest were traditionally blessed during Mass.

In our house, the first harvest of the spring translates immediately to thoughts of asparagus, the delicately flavored vegetable that’s been table food since at least the 3rd century AD when it appeared in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius’s De re coquinaria (On the subject of cooking).

As interesting as that book sounds, I decided not to try to duplicate an asparagus recipe from it. Past attempts to use ancient recipes have ended in miserable disrepute in my house because the spices and sauces are usually composed of ingredients unfamiliar to contemporary tongues. I think particularly here of a failed medieval cheesecake that took so long to bake and was dismissed simply as “weird” by my whole family.

Instead, I recalled fond memories of an asparagus main course served in an old fashioned trattoria in Greenwich Village and decided to try to recreate it. The combination of cheese, egg and asapargus seems to wrap up the whole Easter season in one delightful bunch.

Asparagus Milanese style

– Three pounds of asparagus

– salt to taste

– 8 tablespoons butter

– ¾ cup freshly grated Pecorrino Romano cheese

– 4 eggs

Clean the asparagus thoroughly and trim the root ends to make them all the same length. Tie in a bundle with kitchen string and stand upright in an asparagus pan or saucepan with water reaching halfway up the stems so the stems are cooked by steaming. Add a little salt to the water and bring to a boil. Cook for about 20 minutes.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet and add an egg. Cook it sunny side up and set it aside then repeat the process for the remaining 3 eggs. When the asparagus is cooked, divide it among 4 serving plates, melt the remaining butter until boiling but not brown and spoon over each plate of asparagus, then sprinkle each with a generous amount of Romano cheese. Top each with an egg.

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