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Easter Old and New

Natalie Torta, C'24

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Hey Mounties! I hope you all had a wonderful Easter holiday and a welcome break from what’s already shaping up to be a busy spring. I don’t know about you, but I, for one, was relieved to have a weekend escape from classes and papers and to do lists.

This week’s post, though certainly not as adventurous as Gracie’s great escape, will detail my still (hopefully) interesting experiences this past Easter weekend. Personally, I don’t really have a big family. My Italian heritage is almost scandalized by my lack of cousins – two in total – made worse by the hundreds of miles that separate us. My grandparents are the only extended family that we visit regularly, if you consider a few times a year regular. However, they’re quite spread out across Pennsylvania, so it is customary in the Torta house to celebrate each major holiday three times: once in Jeanette, once in Erie, and, finally, once in Harrisburg. Through a series of long road trips and hectic hotel stays, we milk Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas for all they’re worth. I definitely love the opportunity to see all of my grandparents during the various holidays, but I must admit that those car rides are killer and, by the time we make it back home to Harrisburg for the actual celebration, I’m wiped out.

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This year the mood was a little different, though. Since the pandemic shut everything down last year right before the Easter holiday, it had been over a year since I’d seen any of my extended family in person. My grandpa and aunt video chat regularly, but it isn’t the same as being able to talk to them in person. My grandpa had just finished the two weeks following his second vaccine dose, so he was finally cleared for us to visit again. To add to the excitement, my aunt had just adopted a new dog, Cricket, and we would get to meet her, too! We were all eager to make the trip despite the three-hour drive – the small return to normalcy was highly anticipated and worth the trip.Usually we travel to Erie first (a five hour drive) and spend the night in a hotel there, then the next day drive two and a half hours to Jeanette and finally arrive home in Harrisburg late that night. However, my grandma in Erie has a few additional health concerns, so we’ve decided to prolong visiting until the environment is safer for her. We’ve also shortened our Jeanette tour to just a day trip, which is not only safer for everyone, but easier to accommodate without hotels or packing. So, on Saturday morning, we all piled into the van and began the long drive to Jeanette. It seemed to go quicker than usual, but maybe that was just because the absence of an additional travel day gave me more energy. We passed the time with car bingo and the license plate game, graciously printed and distributed by one of my sisters. We only lasted about an hour before we lost interest in winning, but it was a comical distraction if nothing else. Before long, we arrived! At first it felt a little strange to be back after so long, but inside we were greeted by familiar sights. The veggie tray with onion dip (pronounced “Heh-LOO-vuh” in our house) and smell of kielbasa were more than enough to convince us that nothing had changed.

Well, I guess one thing did change, though it was a welcome one. Aside from the aroma of food, Cricket also greeted us at the door, literally shaking with excitement. She quickly showed us how friendly she was, as well as eager to take the food right off our plates if we weren’t paying attention. What followed was hours of long-awaited dinner, conversation, and company, made more interesting by the need to defend against Cricket’s attempts to clean the plates. In the afternoon, my dad took my sisters to the local Italian market while my grandpa drove my mom and I to the nursing home where my grandma is receiving care. After suffering a stroke about five years ago, she’s been in and out of care centers attempting to rehabilitate the mobility she lost. We had brought her an Easter basket from home full of dried fruit, applesauce, goldfish, and other small treats. When we got there, we couldn’t enter the facility to see her, but we were able to stand in the enclosed entryway on the outside of the glass door that they had wheeled her up to. A caretaker took the basket and showed my grandma all the snacks inside, but she was happier to see us than she was about the gift. We reminisced about the chaos of Easter when my sisters and I were growing up, which included the notorious outdoor hunt for about 250 plastic eggs. Eventually, my grandma told us to leave so that we wouldn’t miss Easter, which made everyone laugh. The drive back to my grandpa’s house was filled with talk about old memories and traditions triggered by the familiar landmarks we passed.

We spent a few more hours in Jeanette after we got back, then we said our goodbyes, piled into the van, and headed home to Harrisburg. One of the traditions that my grandpa had remembered earlier was an easter bread that my grandma used to make every year. After some flavor descriptions from my mom and a quick Google search, we identified it as pane di pasqua, literally “Easter bread”. It’s a traditional Eastern European sweet bread reserved for Easter and features dyed hard boiled eggs resting in the folds of its braided wreath shape. Traditionally, it includes anise (a plant that tastes like black licorice) for spice and orange juice for citrus, making a complex flavor profile. My sisters, not too keen on the idea of anise, requested that I find a recipe that didn’t include it, and I had to agree with them. After some searching, I found a recipe that didn’t appear too difficult and substituted vanilla extract for both the anise and orange juice, so it passed my sisters’ inspection. I then mentally began taking inventory of what ingredients we had in the house since I didn’t want to go grocery shopping on Easter Sunday and we would get home too late to go Saturday night. Miraculously, we had everything we needed left over from my mom’s quarantine hobby of bread-making, so we were good to go!

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On Sunday, my mom and I went to Mass in the morning to help usher since our church did reserved seating. That was a whole adventure on its own, but we eventually were able to take our own seats and celebrate the Mass. Afterwards, we went home, got changed, and I got to work on the pasqua bread. To anyone who has made bread before: was it a life-changing experience for you, too? I don’t know what it was, but I felt the most self-sufficient I ever have in my life as I kneaded the dough. I could have been a pioneer woman or a peasant in the Middle Ages – whoever I was, I was unstoppable. This adrenaline rush (is that the right word? Can you get an adrenaline rush from making bread?) lasted about an hour before I then had to roll out the dough into long pieces that could be braided into a wreath. This took an eternity. I made about eight medium sized wreaths before giving up and using the remaining dough to make one giant pasqua wreath. Another thing that I gave up on was dyeing any more Easter eggs since the ones in the bread have to be raw before they’re baked, and all the dyed eggs we had were hard-boiled already. The pasqua only baked about twenty minutes before being done, though the giant one did require a few extra minutes. The entire house smelled like baking bread and all the wonderful aromas of holiday baking. To make up for the lack of colored eggs in the wreaths, I sprinkled some powdered sugar on top and called it a day.

We ate the pasqua with dinner and, I must say, I was quite impressed with myself. I know it was a beginner-level recipe, but it turned out pretty good considering it was the first time I’d tried making anything like it. The braids even looked nice! I got a lot of compliments on it, both from my own family and my boyfriend’s family, who were the lucky recipients of a few “Happy Easter!” pasqua wreaths. The best part about it, though, wasn’t that they turned out to be pretty good, even if that did boost my ego. It wasn’t even the invincible feeling that comes with personifying a sixteenth-century bread maker, no matter how compelled I was to throw on a dress and apron. The best part, by far, was carrying on a family tradition that I didn’t even know I had. As I’m sure others with small families can relate, the Tortas don’t have a whole lot of traditions. Now that I’m thinking of it, we don’t really have any, but that can probably be attributed to lack of people to carry anything on to the next generation. On its own, this wouldn’t be so bad, but this also means that the glorious recipes that come from the Italian side of my family have no kitchens to live in – absolutely tragic.

Carrying on my family traditions, even as few as there are, makes me feel connected to the rest of my family, no matter how spread out and far gone they may be. It is also a heartwarming experience to make more of our own within our household, like March Madness bracket competitions or Christmas Eve sleepovers. Pasqua, our most recent addition, will join our growing collection of family traditions. I definitely encourage all of you readers to look into family traditions this week, too. Even if you’re family is small like mine, you might be surprised at what you find (hopefully some good recipes or a treasure map, either will suffice)!

Until next time, Go Mount!

Natalie Torta, C'24