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Bringing Back Freshness And Flair To The Easter Table


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you are an observant Christian, then you know that Holy Week begins this weekend with Palm Sunday and concludes next week with Easter Sunday. Those days commemorate the defining moments of the faith.

Now, Christians celebrate in all kinds of ways including with a visit from the Easter Bunny, but a big part of the celebration is that big holiday dinner - emphasis on big. In this country, it's usually ham or lamb and maybe potato salad or scallop potatoes. And that got us thinking again about why we eat what we eat.

And maybe if you aren't a fan of all that heavy meat, what should you do? So we called Frederick Douglass Opie. He is a food historian at Babson College, and he writes the blog Food As A Lens. Welcome back, Professor Opie. Thanks so much for joining us.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS OPIE: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: And also joining us once again Bryant Terry. He's author of the new book "Afro-Vegan: Farm Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed." Welcome back to you, Mr. Terry.

BRYANT TERRY: Thank you for having me on, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Professor Opie, let me start with you. We asked our listeners to tweet us what's on their tables this year. I just want to read a couple. Lauren Davis (ph) wrote, hopefully ham and deviled eggs will be on the menu. Also someone in our family usually picks up Easter bread loaves in Philly. Here's another one.

Listener Franie Nelson (ph) tweeted, fried turkey, mac & cheese, greens, rolls, pound cake, lemon bars and whoopie pies. Now, I don't know how I forgot the deviled eggs in my intro, but it seems that those traditional Easter dishes like deviled eggs, potato salad, all involve, like, you know, eggs, cream. Is that true? Are there Easter kind of must-haves or is this very regional, very personal, very family?

OPIE: I think it's regional. They're definitely must-haves. They're required to get into the household in many situations. You know, you mentioned from one of the people who contributed to the tweets, whoopie pies. As soon as you said that, I said they're from New England. That's a Boston area kind of dish that - or dessert that I've never heard of. But there's regional differences. But they are rich foods.

They're the times of the year where people splurge in their diet and historically splurging maybe, you know, using flowers, white flower or sugar or dairy products. That's all part of the splurge, in addition to the reader that talked about or the tweeter that talked about ham. Those are all examples, historically, of splurging at the table.

MARTIN: Bryant Terry, another listener, Patty Lee (ph), tweeted, trying to get healthier so deviled eggs will be guacamole style. That's where you stuff the egg whites with guacamole instead of the filling made with egg yolk. I don't know if she's got anybody following her down that road, but do you hear from a lot of people who are looking for some alternatives to those heavy foods that a lot of us grew up with?

TERRY: You know, I do hear from a number of people who are looking for both lighter foods and more plant-centered foods to bring to the tables during the holidays. And I'm always happy to, you know, provide my recipes, point people in a different direction for those type of recipes. And I think it's important, as Fred mentioned, the holidays are typically times of celebration where people do give themselves more room to splurge a little bit.

And, you know, for me, having a healthful diet most of the time actually allows one to indulge during the holiday and special occasions and not feel any guilt. So, you know, I think it's nice to have those plant-based options, and I think it's also about just thinking about how we can maintain a healthful diet most of the time.

MARTIN: Well, you were saying, though, that this - maybe people think that eating vegan sounds new age-y, but you're telling us and you've told us before that you're actually bringing back old traditions. Tell us a little bit more about that.

TERRY: Yeah, you know, I like to talk about plant-strong diets because when I think about my ancestors growing up in Memphis and rural Mississippi, you know, the type of meals that we ate every day, the type of things we harvested from our gardens and our farms were just simple nutrient-rich foods like collard greens, mustards, kale, turnips, dandelions, butter beans, black-eyed peas - the type of foods I think any allopathic Western physician would say that most people should eat for a healthful diet.

And so I simply want to help people remember that our foods are bigger than the comfort foods and to say that, you know, we have traditions of eating farm to table.

MARTIN: Well, these days, Professor Opie, you could understand why something like asparagus is something that is a spring vegetable, so that's why, you know, it would make an appearance on the Easter table because this is the kind of thing that is only available - or traditionally only available in the spring, so you would want to enjoy it when it's available. But are there other foods that are particularly associated with Easter, and do they have any specific meanings?

OPIE: I would say that collard greens, kale or any of those type of greens are going to be at the table at an Easter meal. And they are representative of some of the first things that will come out of the ground as it becomes warm enough to return to the garden. You know, as you all were discussing this whole idea of the plant-based diet, I thought of maybe this would be almost like if you looked at a "Star Wars" movie and it said, you know, remember the force, this would be return to the source.

That is, return to the ground where you can then, you know, raise those type of things that - you know, most of the winter, historically speaking, you're eating out of a can, and you can't wait to get to that Easter table. You have something freshly grown that you can consume.

MARTIN: So, Bryant, you know, we've all talked about how food is fuel, but it's also feeling. Can you recommend some dishes that people might want to consider that gives them those kind of feelings that they're used to in consuming those traditional foods at Easter time that might - you know, just give some different alternatives?

TERRY: Well, as Fred was just mentioning...

MARTIN: Well, I don't want anybody causing ruckus 'cause we're trying to take away their mac & cheese, OK. I'm just trying to - so I'm not trying to - I'm trying to keep things quiet here. But just, you know, give us some ideas.

TERRY: And, you know, and I always say that when we think about including more, you know, plant-strong foods in our diet, it's not about rejecting those older traditions. If people have that nostalgia and, you know, those comfort foods, whether it's chitlins or neck bones or macaroni and cheese and a lot of those foods, I get it.

And I don't think we should reject those wholly. But I think we need to think about including or re-including many of the older foods. And so, you know, we're talking about the spring. You know, one of the things that I emphasize is eating seasonal vegetables and seasonal ingredients because - we could make a lot of arguments, but one of the things that makes the most sense is it's most flavorful.

When you're harvesting things straight from the ground that are in season and that are local, they're going to taste so much fresher and delicious than things that have been sitting in trucks or refrigerators for weeks on end. And so I have this all-green Springs slaw in "Afro-Vegan" in which - it's kind of a modern take on the traditional coleslaw.

But really it's just a cabbage-based salad in which we use green peas and sugar snap peas and, you know, celery and pumpkin seeds and parsley and chives. So really taking advantage of many of the, you know, just the things that are heralding spring, these fresh green vegetables. And it's light and it's delicious.

MARTIN: And how do you get your dressing? So you got the green cabbage, you got the green peas, sugar snap peas, celery, pumpkin seeds, flat leaf parsley, the chives. How do you get - and some grated limes. And so how do you get the dressing to bind it? What do you do for that?

TERRY: OK, I don't want to scare anyone off with this, but the dressing is actually a tofu-based dressing. And so traditionally, you know, a lot of vegetarian and vegan cuisine silken tofu is used for desserts and dressings.

So it's a really buttery, soft tofu that, you know, you can blend with a little olive oil, whatever herbs and spices. And so it replaces the mayonnaise that one might see in the kind of ubiquitous drowned-in-mayonnaise potato salads or coleslaws.

MARTIN: See, now I'm detecting a little bit of a bias there, a little bit of a bias, but we'll try to move past it there.

TERRY: But, you know, the funny thing, when I go to family meetings, I'm like - or family food gatherings around food, unlike when I was in high school when I first became a vegan and I was proselytizing and, you know, haranguing people about why they need to be a vegan, I just bring the dish without any meat or anything and put it on the table, and it's interesting. Usually those dishes are gone before the other stuff that's drowned in mayonnaise and drowned in meat. So I let the flavor do the talking.

MARTIN: What about for the traditional like the mustard greens or the greens that people have, and their used to using some kind of meat to give it a more - to flavor it? What do you recommend for that?

TERRY: Slow food, slow-food cooking. Really taking our time doing things like, you know, sauteing the onions in olive oil until they're, you know, crisp and golden and actually starting to caramelize and bringing out a lot of the natural sugar, adding some of the, you know, garlic, maybe adding a number of herbs and spices to punch up the flavor.

And, you know, I find that those things give dishes as much flavor and as much depth as one might get by throwing a piece of fat back in. You know, that stuff is easy, and I get it. And I'm not, like, saying using rendered fat is like - I'm not totally against that if people choose to do that. But that's easy. Like, let's take some time and do some slow-food cooking in the kitchen with the family.

MARTIN: I'll be giving you my address later so that you can demonstrate, you know, up - you know, so. All right, Professor Opie. Final thought from you is that you are a proponent of - like Mr. Terry here - of making sure that people kind of connect the food with the feelings and the ideas that are important. So what is there - is there something you would like us to be thinking about as we plan our Easter menus, those of us who observe this?

OPIE: I just got out of a class, teaching a class. And one of the things I tell them is for those who are observing Easter, when you get home and you see the food on the table, ask the relatives what best represents our family on this table because if you look at that dish and you find out that recipe, it'll give you a better clue of your family's cultural roots than anything else. So that's - one of the things I like to do is have people to not only enjoy consuming the food, but enjoy talking about the food and what it teaches you about your own family's history.

MARTIN: Frederick Douglass Opie is a historian at Babson College. He blogs at Food As A Lens. He was with us from Wellesley, Massachusetts. Bryant Terry is author of the new book "Afro-Vegan." He joined us from San Francisco. Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

OPIE: Thank you.

TERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.