This week's Taste of the Past looks back to 1979.

"Decorations give holiday a worldy flair" was the headline above an April 11, 1979 story about decorative Easter eggs from Latvia and Ukraine, under the byline of Minneapolis Star news assistant Ilga Eglitis (that name can only mean that she was of Latvian descent). Here's the Latvian portion of the story:

Although the calendar says spring arrived weeks ago, Easter usually is considered to be the official usher of the season.

It is universally celebrated as the day all of nature begins to blossom after a long, cold rest.

People of different nations have their own ways of dyeing and decorating eggs before offering them to friends and famiy at Easter as gifts to admire, eat or use in egg-rolling games.

The customs for coloring Latvian Lieldienu olas (meaning Easter eggs) and Ukranian pysanky are generations old.

There's nothing to buy when making the Latvian version; nearly everything you'll need is already in your kitchen cupboards and drawers.

Dried outer skins from yellow onions are a must. Most Latvian families save the skins all year to ensure a plentiful supply.

"You can never have too many," says Janis Pone [in the 1970s, the Minneapolis Star routinely published the street address of folks profiled in its pages; I'll leave out the specifics and leave the family's residence as "south Minneapolis']. For the past year, his wife, Elga, has saved them in a big plastic bucket.

The Pones' kitchen buzzes with chatter and laughter as they color eggs with their three children, Zinta, 7, Imants, 4, and Gunta, 2, whose intent faces ring the big, newpspaper-covered kitchen table.

It is a family affair. Elga watches kettles boiling on the stove and eggs soaking in the sink, while little Gunta swishes stubby fingers in the dye baths.

But even if they didn't have children, Janis and she still would color Easter eggs, Elga says. "I did it all by myself in my bachelor days," Janis adds.

There are two basic ways to create Lieldienu olas.

Marble-like designs are achieved by wrapping raw eggs in layers on onion skins. The designs can be enhanced by pressing small leaves, flower petals and other tiny objects against the egg before layering onion skins around it.

The second method is putting bare, raw eggs into onion dye baths to produce plain, dark colors that are prefect for scratch-carving Latvian folk art symbols on the shells.

To prevent the eggs from cracking during the dyeing process, take them out of the refrigerator a few hours before you're ready to begin.

The Pones dye about five dozen eggs, because they're "Big egg-eaters," Elga says.

The 'egg-dyeying pot" (Elga uses the same one every year because dyes tend to leave a stain) is filled with onion skins and with enough cold water to cover the eggs. Elga suggests adding a few tablespoons of vinegar to the water so the dye adheres better to the eggs. Set the pot aside until the eggs are ready to boil.

Now the fun begins.

Wet an egg with a bit of water and let your imagination run wild.

Press leaves from ferns or other non-poisonous plants, barley, tapicoca, chives, green onion stalks or lace on uncooked eggs. Carefully cover the eggs with onion skins. Then wrap them tightly in material - T-shirt scraps work well - and secure them with string so everything stays in place.

For a marble effect, wrap eggs in thick layers of onion skins - no white should show through. Cover with a piece of material and tie securely.

The remaining eggs can be placed in the dye bath to merge with a rich, dark color for scratching.

Put the pot on to boil. Boil the eggs for about 15 minutes, or until they are completely dyed. Remove them with a slotted spoon. Take care not to scratch the plain ones. Place the eggs in cold water until they are cool enough to handle.

"The greatest excitement of the entire project is the unveiling of the eggs after boiling," Elga says. Everyone gathers around the kitchen sink as eggs are fished out of the pot.

"Taking the wrappings off is just like opening Christmas packages" because "you never know what you'll find inside," she says.

Everyone boisterously claims the prettiest eggs as their own creations.

Natural dyes need not be limited to using yellow onion skins. Use carrot tops, moss and spinach for green; coffee grounds for brown; and beet juice and red onion skins for red.

"Scratch-carving the plain eggs is a good project to save for last," Janis says. Some dedicated designers have even been known to casually create one last masterpiece at the breakfast table on Easter morning while visiting with guests.

The beginner might take 20 minutes to scratch a design on just one side of an egg, Janis says. But an "expert" can design a whole egg in about 30 minutes. The sharp point of a knife or other kitchen utensil can be used as a tool.

A number of Latvian folk art symbols can be used. The sun represnts the bearer of life and began as a simple circle, later evolving into eight separate circles around a center. The auseklis is an eight-sided star that guards against evil at night. The Austra's tree of light or dawn is often combined with the sun symbol. The fire cross represents fire, life, health and prosperity.

Rubbing finished eggs with a piece of bacon gives them more luster.

Because Elsa likes natural things, she displays completed Easter eggs in a wicker basket on the dining room table. Instead of using commercial Easter grasses, she has grown the real thing from oats. Often the eggs are beside a vase of pussy willows, which are traditional in Latvian homes at Easter.

To celebrate the sun's return to spring, the Pones plan their whole Easter menu around it. Round bacon and onion rolls, sweet breads and head cheeses are served.

On Easter morning, the most beautiful eggs are given to friends with wishes of "good luck and prosperity," to be kept forever. (The insides eventually will dry up into a ball.)

Easter breakfast in Latvian homes traditionally begins with an egg-knocking contest. With an egg in hand, each family member challenges the person next to him to crack his egg with another egg. This continues untill all the eggs but one are cracked. Its holder is the victor.

And for those who get carried away, cracking more eggs than they can possible eat, rasols, a Latvian potato salad with eggs, is traditional for the next day's menu.

 

 

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