Butter lambs are Polish Easter tradition
"Do you have any butter lambs?”
When I called the Schenectady meat store, the woman who answered knew exactly what I wanted.
“We don’t have them, but my sister gets them in Utica,” she said.
I called another store, this time in Niskayuna, and was referred to the manager.
“Come again?” he said. “I’m not sure what that is.”
The butter lamb is an Easter tradition for Polish-Americans, and since the Middle Ages, the lamb has been a symbol for Jesus Christ. A small block of butter, molded into the shape of a seated sheep, is put into a basket with kielbasa, colored eggs, rye bread, ham and other food items. The basket is then carried to church on Easter weekend and blessed by a priest.
In my hometown of Buffalo, carrying our family basket to church was a sacred and beloved ritual. On holy Saturday, our church was filled with the aroma of Polish sausage, chocolate and ham. The next day, during the Easter meal at home, called Swieconka, our parents would bless us and wish us good health and happiness as they placed small pieces of the special food on our plates.
In Buffalo, the Malczewski company (www.buffalobutterlambs.com) has been molding and packaging butter lambs for decades, and they are sold at Tops and Wegmans supermarkets. In Utica, you can buy them at Hapanowicz Bros. Meat Market.
Since I moved to the Capital Region, I’ve been like a lost sheep when it comes to Polish Easter.
That is, until I discovered St. Adalbert, the Schenectady church where Mass is celebrated in Polish at 9 a.m. every Sunday.
Last weekend, the Holy Name Society at St. Adalbert’s was selling butter lambs and a scrumptious array of homemade baked goods in a garage behind the church.
After I picked up my lamb, I leaped on to the Internet to look for advice.
You see, the molded lambs are smooth and skinny, and a proper specimen must be fat and fluffy, as it were covered in wool.
To make the fluff, cold butter is pushed through some kind of strainer or sieve, and the curly shreds are then carefully placed on the animal’s body.
Online, I found that some people use a garlic press or a potato ricer.
Then my cousin Kathleen sent me an email. “I did many of them with Mom,” she wrote.
Cut about half a tablespoon from a stick of butter, her instructions began.
“Push with your thumb through a tiny strainer. Then take a toothpick and gently take the “fluffy” butter off the top of the strainer and place gently — piece by piece — over the total lamb, leaving the face open.”
Her mom, my Aunt Genevieve, would make ears out of vinca that she gathered from the garden, and garnish the finished lamb with more vinca.
“She used small peppercorns for eyes and drew a mouth with toothpick dipped in paprika,” my cousin wrote.
For my quick-and-easy lamb, I pushed the cold butter through holes in a slotted metal serving spoon, and picked some myrtle leaves for the ears.
It’s not too late to make your own butter lamb from scratch, by cutting and shaping a block of butter. On YouTube, there are more than 50 videos about butter lambs.
St. Adalbert’s will bless Easter baskets this weekend during Masses at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. Sunday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
“Bring your basket to church and place it on the table up front near the altar before Mass,” the church bulletin says.
Holy Name of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church, St. Madeleine Sophie Church and St. Gabriel the Archangel, all in Schenectady, and Immaculate Conception in Glenville, will also bless food this weekend.
And you don’t have to be Polish-American to have your food blessed for Easter.
In Buffalo, many Italian-Americans have picked up the custom, too.
“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at email@example.com.