A Russian Tart to celebrate Spring Equinox

This week we mark the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, when the hours of light and the hours of darkness are approximately equal. Such occasions were important in pagan societies, and today the Spring  Equinox is known by Wiccans as Ostara (O-STAR-uh), one of their minor Sabbats (festivals).

The name of the festival comes from the Teuton lunar goddess Eostre, whose chief totems were the rabbit, noted for fertility, and the egg, a symbol of creation and rebirth. (Can you say “Easter bunny” and “Easter egg”?)

Eggs are important in many faiths, and they play an important part in the spring religious festivals of two major religions, Judaism and Christianity.

A roasted egg is one of the foods on the Passover seder plate. Jewish scholars will say the egg represents the sacrifices made at the Temple in Jerusalem, and that because hard-boiled eggs are traditionally the first food served to mourners after a funeral, the egg symbolizes mourning for the Temple’s loss. But no one will convince me that there’s no connection to our pagan past.

Similarly, Christians may have adopted use of hard-boiled eggs from their Jewish forebears. The Last Supper was a Passover seder, and early Christians may have wanted to preserve some of its symbols. Or it may have come directly from ancient pagan practices, many of which were co-opted into Christianity. Eventually the egg, a symbol of renewing life, began to be associated with the resurrection of Jesus.

Whatever meaning you want to assign to eggs, the Spring Equinox this week seemed like a good excuse for providing an eggy recipe.

This Russian Tart is also vegetarian so it’s a good one for those refraining from meat during Lent. It’s a bit of a to-do to make, and the ingredients may strike you as a little odd, but it’s worth the bother.

There’s quite a lot of filling, so be sure to use a large and deep pie plate for the baking.

Mark the Spring Equinox by destroying Le Nain Rouge (and eating baked French Toast)

Let New Orleans have its Mardi Gras!  Detroit has the Marche du Nain Rouge, a unique parade designed to force the Red Dwarf (Le Nain Rouge) from the city.

This isn’t necessarily a story about food, but I wanted to do something related to the Spring Equinox and I found the legend of Le Nain Rouge intriguing. Supposedly whenever Le Nain has been sighted, a great tragedy has happened in the city.

First sighted in 1701

Le Nain Rouge was first seen by Detroit’s founder, Antione de la Mothe Cadillac, in 1701. He was strolling just outside the walls of Fort Ponchartrain, site of the original settlement, when Le Nain crossed his path. Cadillac drove it off, but it cursed him as it retreated.

Cadillac’s life was never the same. He was indicted by the French government on charges of illegal trafficking, removed from power and imprisoned. Although he was eventually cleared, he never regained his fortune or land in Detroit.

A portent of disaster

Later, Le Nain was spotted before a disastrous clash between the British and Chief Pontiac’s tribe; 58 British soldiers were killed. People claim to have seen Le Nain Rouge in 1805, just before a fire destroyed much of the City of Detroit.

During the War of 1812, General William Hull surrendered Fort Detroit without firing a shot after he reported seeing a dwarf dancing nearby. He became the only American officer sentenced to death for military incompetence (he was reprieved by President James Madison).

More recently, Le Nain was spotted in 1967, just before a week of civil disturbances erupted in Detroit, and in 1976, just before one of the worst ice storms the city ever experienced.

How will you recognize Le Nain Rouge if you see him? He’s not a very attractive character. He’s supposed to be child-sized and wear brown clothing with red or black fur boots. He has blazing red eyes and rotten teeth.

Drive him out!

La Marche du Nain Rouge drives the red dwarf out of Detroit, preventing him from plaguing the city and its residents for another year. It’s held on the Sunday closest to the Spring Equinox, which is appropriate timing, since the Spring Equinox symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings in numerous cultures.

La Marche du Nain Rouge is a parade and street carnival, similar to Mardi Gras and other Carnival celebrations.

A local dresses up as Le Nain Rouge, with a mask to conceal his (or her) identity. Le Nain leads the parade, followed by 12 Detroiters called La Bande du Nains. The band consists of a man, woman and child from each of four continents: Africa, the Americas (North and South), Asia and Europe. They dress in 18th century costumes, like the Detroiters who first drove Le Nain from the city, and carry pots and pans, sticks and canes.

Le Nain and La Bande are followed by musicians, floats and individual marchers. Costumes run the gamut from supernatural creatures and historical and political figures to just wild and crazy.

Originally La Marche du Nain Rouge followed one of Detroit’s oldest streets south to the Detroit River, where Le Nain was thrown. More recently, the march has ended at a city park where an effigy of Le Nain is burned.

If you’re anywhere near Detroit next Sunday, come join the fun! The march starts at 1 p.m. in the parking lot of the Traffic Jam and Snug, Canfield and Second, and moves down Cass to Temple, ending in Cass Park.

A not-really-French recipe

What does all this have to do with food? Not much, as I’ve already admitted, but I thought this was a cool story. In looking for a recipe to conclude this column, I remembered a great recipe for baked French toast. OK, so that’s not really French–but it’s a wonderful dish! It comes from a bed & breakfast we once stayed in called the Music Box Inn in Whitehall, Michigan.

You can use low-fat milk instead of the half & half if you want to reduce the fat, and it will still taste good – just not as good! With the half & half, it’s very rich and extremely delicious.

Be sure to use real maple syrup, not any of that god-awful fake stuff, and note that you need to start preparing it the night before you plan to eat it.

(The photo with the recipe is by Baking Junkie, via Flickr Creative Commons.)