Monday, April 1, 2013

Eggs, Soup, Stoves & Two Paschal Saints

I live in Pittsburgh.

Today is Good Friday; Easter is this Sunday.

When I think about Easter in Pittsburgh, other than the spiritual aspects, I think about two things: my short-lived career as the Easter Bunny (which is another story!), and pysanky, one of several names for the beautifully-decorated eggs from Eastern Europe that so many Pittsburghers still make, exchange, and display.  Since I'm originally from northwestern New Jersey, the first time I saw any were at a Pittsburgh Folk Festival back in the '70s, and I remember on other visits seeing demonstrations of how they are made, using a beeswax batik method fraught with symbolism and vivid color. You can find out more about them at some sites I’ll list below. Of course, with a major holy/holiday coming up, I’ve been thinking about holiday foods....

My storytelling colleague and friend in West Virginia, Granny Sue Holstein, wrote a blog post this past Monday, March 25, 2013, “Creamy Broccoli-Cauliflower Cheese Soup and Other Veggies,” about soup and bread which included a link to an earlier post (“Kitchen Work, Paperwork, and a Short Journey”) with a recipe for her homemade vegetable soup. Because spring is so late and cold this year, I’ve been collecting homemade soup recipes lately. So, naturally, I clicked on that link.

As soon as I began reading, I remembered  it from when she originally posted it two years ago, also mentioning a 1900s clayback or ceramic gas heater she and Larry had bought. This post of mine isn’t really about soup recipes—sorry to disappoint you!—but hers caused me to think about one of the niftiest places I’ve ever been, Haute-Koenigsbourg Chateau, near Colmar in Alsace, France on the Wine route. No, we didn’t have vegetable soup there on our visit, but the connection between soup, Granny Sue’s old stove, and the castle is: warmth.

Because I'm a storyteller, I began thinking about stoves in folktales; because it is almost Easter and I'd been thinking about pysanky, I also thought about Russian pechka (stoves) in peasant huts in past centuries, and referred to in folktales.

The chateau is a castle, its foundations dating back to the 11th Century, dominating the plain below from a peak in the Vosges Mountains. The name is a hybrid reminder that this area has gone back and forth over the centuries  between French and German control, meaning “High King’s Burg.” Inland from the Rhine, it still makes me think of all the robber barons’ castles perched above the countryside. It was renovated to withstand new artillery methods used  in siege warfare in the Thirty Years’ War, but it fell despite its three wells, and over the centuries, was abandoned and fell into picuresque ruins. Alsace and Lorraine were both taken from France after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; this war was caused by Bismarck in his final bid to unite and create modern Germany. By altering a telegram, the Ems Dispatch, from the Kaiser to Napoleon III, he tricked France into declaring war, and the Catholic southern German states allied with his  (Protestant) North German Federation, and they won. The French not only lost the war and two provinces, but also had to pay a huge amount AND watch while their enemy hammered out their unification agreement at Versailles. It is thought that this contributed to World War I some thirty years’ later.

Looking Up at the Walls
Kaiser Wilhelm decided to renovate the castle as a symbol of Alsace’s integration into Germany in 1900. Over the next eight years, the architect, Bodo Ebhardt, supervised his painstakingly accurate depiction of the castle ca. the Thirty Years’ War, and the result is stunning. Alsace and Lorriane were restored to France after WWI (my Alsatian grandfather,  Jon Pierre Jacob, whose father had been killed by German soldiers in 1871in front of him when he was only three years old in their front yard, had later emigrated to the US. He told my father that France’s refusal to force his home region’s restoration sooner had been a sore point to the French residents… although he admitted that having to grow up speaking German had made it easier for him to court and marry my grandmother, Wilhemina von Leising, who was from the Black Forest.)

My father was eager to see the place that he’d heard so many stories about, and being interested in medieval history and literature, my mother, sister and I looked forward to it too. We weren’t disappointed!

Deer Antlers Outside Kinghts' Hall
I loved the dragon in the solar, the chapel’s private balcony, and the painted decorations in the great hall, and my sister couldn’t stop marveling at the windmill atop one tower while we ate lunch. I connect places with stories, and the castle is no exception! As we paused in the hallway outside the knights’ hall, Dad told us that the wall painting near the many antlers mounted there represented a legend about St. Hubert, patron of hunters.

As a young man, Hubert was so in love with hunting that he neglected other duties, including attending Mass on Good Friday. Despite his very pregnant wife’s pleas not to go, he insisted on pursuing a stag with his hounds. As they all raced across a field near a wood, to his astonishment, the deer suddenly turned and faced him, and he saw it bore a crucifix between its antlers. Christ spoke to him from that cross, saying, “Hubert, unless you turn to the Lord, you shall fall quickly into the abyss of Hell!”

Immediately dismounting, Hubert prostrated himself and asked what to do. He was told to seek out Lambert, the Bishop of Maastricht, for guidance. His wife died in giving birth to his firstborn son, whom he gave to his brother, renouncing all his honors in favor of a life devoted to God. “The deer with the cross on its antlers has been a symbol of the Jargomeister, or Master Hunter, ever since,” Dad said. Hunting in Germany is so steeped in tradition that to become worthy of that designation calls for a four-year apprenticeship and a proven record of good character as well as hunting prowess.

One feature in the castle that surprised us were the big tiled stoves we saw in the solar, the lord’s private closet (office), and the knights’ hall. Such stoves provided a great deal of warmth for a comparatively small amount of fuel (not that there was a shortage of trees in the Vosges; logging is still important). The one in the lord’s closet had two doors, and the docent told us it was so that if he was meeting privately, a servant could add fuel from the stairwell without coming in and interrupting, or hearing something he shouldn’t! I especially liked the green one in the knights’ hall, because of the bench that was next to it, probably reserved for the lord’s most important warriors.

One of my favorite fantasy authors is Mercedes Lackey,  because she's as much in love with folktales and lore as I am. In Fortune’s Fool, drawing on her research into Eastern European tales, she writes about her hero setting forth to find his vanished love. That quest leads him to Baba Yaga’s eerie hut on its chicken legs in a clearing surrounded by a fence made of human bones, each “post” surmounted by a skull whose eyes glare watchfully at night. Posing as a mute fool, he is accepted as a servant by the witch, but she is so cruel and miserly that she breaks the social compact of employer/employee, freeing him to pursue his mission. For example, she doesn’t feed him properly, nor offer him a place on the stove to sleep. Far from giving him such sacred fare as an egg, she tries to feed him on a small portion of cabbage.

In a harsh climate like Russia, to scant someone on such basic hospitality is a sin against nature. Her hut, described as bigger on the inside than it appears outwardly, is filled with heaps of items she has hoarded, and this jackdaw rapacity just underlines her unnaturalness as well as the power that enabled her to obtain so much plunder.

In the midst of these thoughts, I remembered some stories that our friend Judy Weidenhof told me about Mary Magdelene. In the Russo-Carpathian and Eastern Orthodox traditions, she is not considered a woman of ill fame, but equal among the apostles. In one legend, she and the other women took eggs with them to the Tomb on Easter Sunday, and when she came out, she saw that the eggs had been turned red; in another legend, she was given an audience with Emperor Tiberius, greeting him with a Christian salutation, “Christ is risen!” The Emperor replied, “That is as likely as this dish of cooked [boiled] eggs turning red!”—and they immediately did. She is often depicted in icons as carrying a red egg.

In this season of renewal and warmth, may you have the warmth of soup and stoves, the beauty of decorated, tradition-laden eggs, and the joy of saints around you!


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