The days approaching Easter were filled with excitement and anticipation for us while we were growing up in Yugoslavia. As soon as we noticed the envelopes of different dyes and cartons of eggs waiting in the pantry, we became antsy, barely able to wait for “Veliki Cetvrtak” or Big Thursday, to join in the ritual of coloring Easter eggs. The galley kitchen in our old house was too narrow to accommodate Mother’s slender figure joined by Njanja’s much more corpulent presence. When the three of us ran around, weaving through skirts and legs, the small space became like an anthill, teeming with small creatures.
Mother would empty an envelope in the water, add a tablespoon of vinegar to help set the color, and heat it until it boiled. She would place the eggs one by one carefully into the bubbling liquid, and let them move around and absorb the color for fifteen or twenty minutes. The moment when the eggs were to emerge from the murky swirls was greeted by wide open eyes. Upon resting our glances on a perfectly colored oval resting in the spoon glistening in Carmine Red, Prussian Green, Cadmium Yellow, Permanent Violet, or Cobalt Blue, the smiles of relief would appear, and the egg would be placed gingerly onto a plate to cool off.
We breathed in the astringent smell of vinegar waiting eagerly for our cue to affix the clingy decorative labels depicting adorable chickens and cute bunnies onto the eggs. After straightening the folds of the filmy material, making it become one with the surface, Mother would rub the eggs with bacon, making them shiny and beautiful, resplendent in their primary colors.
The first red egg was sequestered into the credenza to await the next year’s Big Thursday, replacing the old one that sat triumphantly on the shelf for a year. This egg was called “Cuvarkuca”, its purpose: to take care of the house and its inhabitants and protect them from the evil spirits. They say that this first red egg never rots, but I was never brave enough to test this hypothesis.
At the conclusion of this endeavor, there were baskets of colorful eggs adorning every flat surface of the house. We would approach them surreptitiously and caress their smooth surfaces, trying to pick the sturdiest specimens for the upcoming egg battle on Sunday morning. We called forth images of Father choosing a ripe watermelon, thumping and probing, and shook the eggs, knocked on them, and rolled them around. We pulled the ones we decorated on top, and marked the possible winners with a marker. Every day the position of the eggs in the baskets changed, as we attempted to be sly and sneaky, looking forward to the challenge.
Veliki Petak (Great Friday, as opposed to Good Friday) was one of the few days during the course of the year that we observed the Eastern Orthodox Lent rules: no red meat, no dairy, no eggs. I am convinced that I mastered the art of delayed gratification ogling those beautiful eggs for three days, without being able to get to them.
Our Lenten dinner was not a humble affair. There was always a lot of pan-fried fish (trout or fresh-water bass), accompanied by crusty bread, potato salad with red onions and a vinaigrette, baked Serbian beans, black radish relish, and several desserts, including baklava. But those forbidden eggs taunting us with their vibrant splendor were the center of our attention.
The Easter Sunday table was covered with a crisp, white, starched tablecloth that awaited us early in the morning when we sauntered in with our freshly scrubbed faces and squeaky-clean teeth. We wore our best clothes that Mother picked the night before and laid for us on the living room couch. We would solemnly sit at the table, appraising its offerings: magenta slivers of fresh radishes, crisp spears of green onions, white cubes of farmers’ cheese, a bowl of pale yellow kajmak, a platter exhibiting one of Mother’s baking masterpieces, and in the center: the basket of eggs, flanked by a wooden salt and pepper dispenser.
We would wait patiently while the adults took their places at the table, ready to grab the egg we had chosen days ago to be the contender. When everybody’s cups were filled with milk or yogurt, the egg battle could commence. The only rule that was imposed was the proper positioning of the egg in the hand. We went around, knocking egg against egg, sharper side to sharper side, obtuse to obtuse, until one egg was the absolute winner, having at least one of the sides intact. The other eggs became pure fodder for the masses, dunked in salt and eaten together with crunchy scallions. The winner went back to the basket, its owner jealously guarding it during any upcoming meal. These battles were not to be taken frivolously and everybody coveted the winning egg. But we all enjoyed the rest of the Easter breakfast, laughing, arguing the merits of each carefully chosen egg, and enjoying the wonderful food greeting us on the table.
I was not raised in a religious household, and neither are my girls. But when Easter approaches, their eyes become sparkly, and they start talking eggs. I indulge them and offer the cups of food coloring diluted in hot water. They draw with crayons before they color the eggs. They put sprinkles and rhinestones on eggs, they write messages and names, they try their best in topping the previous year’s lovelies.
I do not buy the envelopes of powder dye, even though I still have dreams of those eggs posing on the dining room table. I collect onion skins and color my eggs naturally, decorating them with a leaf, a petal, a frond. It is a method widely used in Serbia, and I just love the hues that I get from different exposure times and differently colored eggs.
I carefully lay the basket of colored eggs on my Easter Sunday table, accompanied by magenta-hued radishes, crispy scallions, and freshly baked bread. The girls come out of their room scrubbed and clean, wearing their best clothes. Looking at their eyes darting around, appraising the situation, picking the best egg for the battle, I try to stifle a smile. I know for certain that they are going to pick the eggs they decorated, thinking they just might win this time!
ONION SKIN COLORED EGGS
- 2 dozen eggs (buy them several days in advance and let them rest in the fridge)
- Onion skins (yellow onions and red onions are the best) â€“ I start collecting mine a couple of months before
- 1-2 Tbsp vinegar
- leaves, fronds, petals – anything you think might make a good impression on the egg
- old stockings
- twist ties or rubber bands
Wet a spot on the egg and affix the leaf, a petal, or a frond onto the egg. Wrap tightly in the stocking and twist off with a twist tie or a rubber band.
Fill a big Dutch oven or a stainless steal pot with onion skins, add water, and nestle the wrapped eggs inside. Heat until boiling, and then turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer for twenty to thirty minutes (depending on the desired shade, the eggs can simmer for up to one hour.) Pull the eggs out and allow to cool. Cut the wrapping around the eggs and remove the greenery. Rub the eggs with a piece of bacon to seal the pores.
I have colored my eggs successfully using turmeric and coffee. I love all the different hues I get with the method. I also use garlic skins to achieve marble effect, rubber bands, the adhesive “dots” that are left after punching holes in paper, and textured plastic bags that hold my garlic bulbs or potatoes.