For some, it's not Easter without the (butter) lamb
Baked ham and brightly colored eggs are standard Easter fare for many families. But for some, it's the butter that takes center stage. That is, butter shaped like a lamb.
Popular in pockets throughout the country, butter lambs -- usually about the size of a stick of butter -- are an Easter tradition for families of eastern European descent. They originally were made by hand at home, and later by companies using much the same production method. Today, they mostly are produced by machine at creameries like Danish Maid in Chicago, where 155,000 butter lambs were made for this Easter season.
Susan Wagner, whose family owns Danish Maid, said that up until the 1970s workers at the creamery would pour the butter into wooden molds, clamp them shut with rubber bands, then submerge them in ice water to set. "They were making just as many by hand as we're making with a machine," she said. "I can't imagine how much time went into it."
The butter lambs are common in Easter baskets and at holiday meals for Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, though food historians largely draw a blank on specifics of their background.
Cathy Kaufman, president of the Culinary Historians of New York and a food studies teacher at The New School, said the butter lamb is a nod to both Easter symbolism -- Jesus often is referred to as the "lamb of God" -- and to the tradition of Catholics abstaining from butter during Lent, the 40 days of atonement for sins that Christians mark before Easter.
"Easter Sunday would be the time to eat all of the foods that had been missing during Lent," she said. "So the butter lamb sculpture makes its appearance on the table."
While Wagner and her family still have the wooden molds, they have since updated the butter lamb-making process. Now they dump large boxes of bulk butter into a vat and whip it before using machines to form the butter into lamb shapes. The butter lambs then are packaged in plastic forms that come down conveyors before they're boxed, frozen and shipped to grocers.
The Chicago creamery starts work on the butter lambs about two months before Easter and distributes them to grocers in eight states around the Midwest, East Coast and West.
It takes about 20 tons of butter every Easter season to make about 100,000 Malczewski Easter butter lambs in five different sizes, said Adam Cichocki of Camellia Meats in Buffalo, New York, the company that produces the butter lambs first created by Dorothy Malczewski. She started making and selling butter lambs decades ago after she was inspired by a lamb-shaped butter mold her father brought to the U.S. from Poland, Cichocki said. The Malczewski butter lambs have a red ribbon around the lamb's neck, peppercorn eyes and a flag that says "Alleluia."
"The flag signifies alleluia, peace on earth," Cichocki said. "Red ribbon around the neck is the blood of Christ and the peppercorn eyes are lighting of the world. It's a religious symbol, a traditional symbol for family and bringing everybody together at the table for Easter."
The butter lambs remain popular because they are nostalgic for many people, Wagner said.
"Everyone says the same thing, we all argued over who cut the head off the lamb or the butt off the lamb," she said. "For me, it's all I've ever known. The lambs have always been a huge part of our Easter. All of our family members, that's what they look forward to every year."
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