Apr 012018

Last year when I was celebrating moveable feasts on this blog I appear to have omitted Easter Sunday which is the prime moveable feast in Christianity on which most other moveable feasts hang. A serious omission for an ordained minister. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I will rectify the omission now with some academic stuff about the name Easter and the history of celebration, followed by some thoughts on roast lamb.

The modern English term Easter, cognate with modern Dutch ooster and German Ostern, developed from an Old English word that usually appears in the form Ēastrun, -on, or -an; but also as Ēastru, -o; and Ēastre or Ēostre. The most widely accepted theory of the origin of the term is that it is derived from the name of an Old English goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.”

In Latin and Greek, the Christian celebration was, and still is, called Pascha (Greek: Πάσχα), a word derived from Aramaic פסחא (Paskha), cognate to Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach). The word originally denoted the Jewish festival known in English as Passover because the crucifixion happened during that festival in Jerusalem. As early as the 50s of the 1st century, Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, applied the term to the crucifixion and resurrection, and it is unlikely that the Ephesian and Corinthian Christians were the first to hear Exodus 12 interpreted as speaking about the death of Jesus, not just about the Jewish Passover ritual. In most of the non-English speaking Christian world, the feast is known by names derived from Greek and Latin Pascha.

The Greek Bible asserts that the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian faith. According to the Greek Bible, first in Paul’s letters, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning, as in the upper room during the Last Supper he prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He identified the unleavened bread and cup of wine associated with the meal as his body soon to be sacrificed and his blood soon to be shed, inaugurating Holy Communion. The events of the first Easter were probably the first written documents of the early Christian community, although they may have circulated orally for some time before they were codified in writing. The earliest full description is in Mark’s gospel, but snippets can be found in Paul’s letters that pre-date any extant gospel. Unfortunately, Paul was not an eyewitness to the crucifixion, but relied on the testimony of those who were – including the disciples. He knew Peter, James, and John well, and also spoke to dozens of people who were in Jerusalem at the time. None of the gospels was written by an eyewitness, and three of them were written a full generation or more after the first Easter. You can get my full analysis of the original written accounts in my book The Thinking Christian, which is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522616044&sr=8-1&keywords=forrest+thinking+christian&dpID=51CpH0e0zJL&preST=_SY445_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

It is likely that Christians immediately after the first Easter continued to celebrate Passover (because they were Jewish), but did so in a way that celebrated Jesus’s death and resurrection. Direct evidence for a more fully formed Christian festival of Easter begins to appear in the mid-2nd century. Perhaps the earliest extant primary source referring to Easter is a Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis (died c.180), which characterizes the celebration as a well-established one.

The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus (c. 380 – 439) attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of a Jewish Christian custom at Passover, “just as many other customs have been established”, stating that neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. He describes the details of Easter celebrations as deriving from local customs, but says the feast itself is universally observed.

The First Council of Nicaea (325) established two rules, independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the Council. No details for the computation were specified; these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. In particular, the Council did not decree that Easter must fall on a Sunday, but this was already the practice almost everywhere. The rule of thumb is that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox (customarily set at March 21st ). If I were to go into detail about how this rule was interpreted, I would be writing all year. It is sufficient to say that many calendar reforms, including the Gregorian calendar, came about in order to assess the dating of Easter. Orthodox and Western Christian Easter (Catholic and Protestant) are almost always on different days, and there is little opportunity for Passover and Easter to coincide, not least because Passover does not have to fall on a particular day of the week.

Sometimes scholars will note that the egg and the hare (not the rabbit) were considered special to the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre or Ostara (who gives us the English word, Easter), and hence Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are syncretisms, much like the association of trees, mistletoe, and holly with Christmas. This is pure wishful speculation. Ēostre is attested solely by Bede in his 8th-century work The Reckoning of Time. At this point there is no way of knowing how eggs and bunnies got tied to Easter.

How lamb was fixed as a traditional Easter dinner is much more obvious, but a little strange theologically. The gospels not only connect the Last Supper with the Passover meal (with lamb as the centerpiece), but John quite expressly states the Jesus is the lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, in the same way that Passover lambs were sacrificed for individuals’ sins. So, not only are you supposed to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ at Holy Communion, but on Easter Sunday you eat the lamb also (although this is a real lamb, not the mystical one). You can make of this what you will.

My family always had roast lamb on Easter Sunday, but in Australia this was nothing special because we ate roast lamb every Sunday. Lamb was cheap meat in those days, and a shoulder or leg for roasting was affordable. We ate roast chicken for special occasions, such as Christmas and birthdays. My mother would put on the roast with some potatoes before we went to church, and then have our Sunday dinner when we returned. I cannot ask her now but I suspect she roasted it at 325˚F for roughly 2 hours (10:30 am to 12:30 pm), which is overcooking by my current standards. In those days English cooks were not fond of roast meats showing any pinkness. Even nowadays, people not accustomed to cooking lamb, treat it like pork, assuming that it must be cooked all the way through to be healthy. This is rank nonsense. You don’t want to cook lamb as rare as roast beef, but, at minimum, the meat should be pink in the center. This way the whole roast is juicy; not dry as it is of cooked all the way through.

My method of roasting lamb is not very scientific, but I think my dinner guests will attest that it is always good. Begin with the roast – a whole leg is best – at room temperature. Make sure it is as dry as possible by wiping the outer membrane with a paper towel. Take several cloves of garlic, peel them, and slice them thinly. With a very sharp paring knife, make shallow slits in the outer membrane and slide a garlic slice into each one. The slits can be as numerous as you want, but I space mine around ½ to 1 inch apart. Then coat the lamb lightly with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle liberally with freshly ground black pepper. I heat my oven to at least 450˚F, or hotter if I can, and roast the leg for between 1 hour and 90 minutes depending on the size. The outer layer browns, and the garlic suffuses the meat.

When the meat is cooked I remove it from the oven, place it on a carving platter, cover it with a foil tent, and let it rest whilst I make the gravy. This step is essential to distribute the juices throughout the meat. I place the roasting pan directly on the stove over medium heat and add as much flour as there is pan juices. I stir the mix with a whisk until I have a roux, and then add a little stock. As the gravy thickens – which it does very quickly – I add more stock until I have the consistency I like. Then I add fresh rosemary, and let the whole pan simmer for about 10 minutes. For variety I sometimes add grated horseradish in place of the rosemary. (Horseradish is one of the bitter herbs of Passover).

For a complete Easter dinner I serve the roast leg whole and carve it at the table. For accompaniments there is the gravy and roast potatoes, which, cooked at that heat, become crisp and brown on the outside and soft on the inside. I usually also roast some whole onions, and maybe some leeks cut into 4 inch lengths, parsnips, and other root vegetables. In addition I have at least one green vegetable, preferably spinach.

A Happy Easter !!!

Jun 172015


Today is the birthday (1867) of Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson, Australian writer and poet. Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period and is often called Australia’s “greatest short story writer”. He was the son of the poet, publisher and political activist, Louisa Lawson, subject of one of my very earliest posts here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/louisa-lawson-and-the-dawn-club/

Henry Lawson was born on the Grenfell goldfields of New South Wales. His father was Niels Hertzberg Larsen, a Norwegian-born miner from Tromøya near Arendal. Niels Larsen went to sea at 21 and arrived in Melbourne in 1855 to join the gold rush, along with partner William Henry John Slee. Lawson’s parents met at the goldfields of Pipeclay (now Eurunderee New South Wales). Niels and Louisa Albury (1848–1920) married on 7 July 1866 when he was 32 and she 18. On Henry’s birth, the family surname was Anglicized and Niels became Peter Lawson. The newly married couple were to have an unhappy marriage. Louisa took a significant part in women’s movements, and edited a women’s paper called The Dawn (published May 1888 to July 1905). She also published her son’s first volume, and around 1904 brought out a volume of her own, Dert and Do, a simple story of 18,000 words. In 1905 she collected and published her own verses, The Lonely Crossing and other Poems. Louisa likely had a strong influence on her son’s literary work in its earliest days


Lawson attended school at Eurunderee from 2 October 1876 but suffered an ear infection at around this time. It left him with partial deafness and by the age of fourteen he had lost his hearing entirely. However, his master John Tierney was a kindly man and did all he could for Lawson, who was quite shy. Lawson later attended a Catholic school at Mudgee, around 8 km away. The master there, Mr Kevan, taught Lawson about poetry and literature. Lawson was a keen reader, and reading became a major source of his education because, due to his deafness, he had trouble learning in the classroom.

In 1883, after working on building jobs with his father in the Blue Mountains, Lawson joined his mother in Sydney at her request. Louisa was then living with Henry’s sister and brother. At this time, Lawson was working during the day and studying at night for his matriculation in the hopes of receiving a university education. However, he failed his exams. At around 20 years of age Lawson went to the eye and ear hospital in Melbourne but nothing could be done for his deafness.


In 1896, Lawson married Bertha Bredt, daughter of Bertha Bredt, the prominent socialist. The marriage was unhappy due to Lawson’s alcoholism. They had two children, son Jim (Joseph) and daughter Bertha. However, the marriage ended badly and with poor relations between them ever after.

Lawson’s first published poem was ‘A Song of the Republic’ which appeared in The Bulletin, 1 October 1887. His mother’s republican friends were an obvious influence. This was followed by ‘The Wreck of the Derry Castle’ and then ‘Golden Gully.’ Prefixed to the former poem was an editorial ‘note:

In publishing the subjoined verses we take pleasure in stating that the writer is a boy of 17 years, a young Australian, who has as yet had an imperfect education and is earning his living under some difficulties as a housepainter, a youth whose poetic genius here speaks eloquently for itself.       

Lawson was 20 years old, not 17.


From 1890-1891 Lawson worked in Albany. He then received an offer to write for the Brisbane Boomerang in 1891, but he lasted only around 7–8 months as the Boomerang was soon in trouble. While in Brisbane he contributed to William Lane’s Worker; he later angled for an editorial position with the similarly-named Worker of Sydney, but was unsuccessful. He returned to Sydney and continued to write for the Bulletin which, in 1892, paid for an inland trip where he experienced the harsh realities of drought-affected New South Wales. He also worked as a roustabout (general hand) in the woolshed at Toorale Station. This resulted in his contributions to the Bulletin Debate and became a source for many of his stories in subsequent years. One critic describes the trek Lawson took between Hungerford and Bourke as “the most important trek in Australian literary history” and says that “it confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson had no romantic illusions about a ‘rural idyll’ such as projected by Banjo Paterson.


Lawson’s most successful prose collection is While the Billy Boils, published in 1896. Lawson created his own style and defined Australians in a new way: laconic, egalitarian, and humane. Most of his work focuses on the Australian bush, such as the desolate “Past Carin’ ” a starkly realistic portrait of Australian life as it was at the time, or “The Drover’s Wife” a bleak description of loneliness. It is regularly studied in schools and has often been adapted for film and theater. Lawson was a firm believer in the merits of the sketch story, commonly known simply as ‘the sketch,’ claiming that “the sketch story is best of all.”  Lawson’s “On The Edge Of A Plain,” is often cited as one of the most accomplished examples of the sketch.

Like the majority of Australians, Lawson was a city dweller, but he had had plenty of knowledge of outback life, and, in fact, many of his stories reflect his experiences of Australian urban life. In Sydney in 1898 he was a prominent member of the Dawn and Dusk Club, a bohemian club of writer friends who met for drinks and conversation.


In 1903 he took a room at Mrs Isabel Byers’ Coffee Palace in North Sydney. This marked the beginning of a 20-year friendship between Byers and Lawson. Despite his position as the most celebrated Australian writer of the time, Lawson was deeply depressed and perpetually poor. He lacked money due to unfortunate royalty deals with publishers. His ex-wife repeatedly reported him for non-payment of child maintenance, resulting in jail terms. He was jailed at Darlinghurst Gaol for drunkenness and non-payment of child support, and recorded his experience in the haunting poem “One Hundred and Three” – his prison number – which was published in 1908. He refers to the prison as “Starvinghurst Gaol” because of the meager rations given to the inmates. At this time, Lawson became withdrawn, alcoholic, and unable to carry on the usual routine of life.

Byers was an excellent poet herself and although of modest education, had been writing vivid poetry since her teens in a similar style to Lawson’s. She was long separated from her husband and elderly, and was, at the time she met Lawson, a woman of independent means looking forward to retirement. Byers regarded Lawson as Australia’s greatest living poet, and hoped to sustain him well enough to keep him writing. She negotiated on his behalf with publishers, helped to arrange contact with his children, wrote to friends and supporters to help him financially, and assisted and nursed him through his mental and alcohol problems. She wrote countless letters on his behalf and knocked on any doors that could provide Lawson with financial assistance or a publishing deal.

Lawson died, of cerebral hemorrhage, in Abbotsford, Sydney in 1922. He was given a state funeral. His funeral was attended by the Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang (who was the husband of Lawson’s sister-in-law Hilda Bredt), as well as thousands of citizens. He is interred at Waverley Cemetery. Lawson was the first person to be granted a New South Wales state funeral (traditionally reserved for Governors, Chief Justices, etc.) on the grounds of having been a ‘distinguished citizen’.


I knew almost nothing about Lawson when I was a schoolboy in South Australia in the 1950s and ‘60s. We studied poetry and short stories in English classes but very little of it was bred in Australia. Most of our poetry diet was the classics of the 19th century, such as Kipling and Newbolt; our set books were Wind in the Willows, Gulliver’s Travels, and Treasure Island. When we did read Australians it was Banjo Paterson, not Lawson – too honest for the education department of the era, I suppose. The only reason I even knew his name was that I was an avid stamp collector and there was a nice sepia image of him on a 1949 stamp. I hope things are different now. In hindsight it seems to me that Australia was ashamed of its homegrown life back then. When television arrived it was all shows from the U.S. and England; history classes favored the English Tudors and Stuarts over Australian explorers. I know more about Australian history, poetry, and art now than when I was 14. Lawson wrote, “We shall never be understood or respected by the English until we carry our individuality to extremes, and by asserting our independence, become of sufficient consequence in their eyes to merit a closer study than they have hitherto accorded us.”

Here’s an epitaph in his own words: “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”


The lack of much in the way of Australian indigenous cuisine is also, I believe, a reflection of the Australian heritage of European immigration which fostered a sentimental look back at “the old country.” My mainstay for dinner was my mum’s English cooking. Sundays we always had a Sunday roast, and it was always lamb. Lamb was sometimes called “365” because it was cheap enough to eat every day. Mum put a shoulder of lamb on to cook before we went to church, and it was ready to serve when we got home. There might be leftovers for Monday. Despite it being just about all I ate on Sundays I’m still a huge fan. But you have to do it right. First and foremost, roast lamb should be pink inside. Too many people think it should be uniformly grey inside – why not roast some cardboard instead? And you should serve it with roast potatoes. Mine, I humbly state, were legendary – I had to make bucketloads to satisfy my guests.

A shoulder of lamb can be boned and rolled (makes for easy carving), but I think it is more flavorful on the bone. Bring it to room temperature several hours before cooking, slice several cloves of garlic rather thickly, and insert them under the skin. With the point of a sharp paring knife puncture shallow slits all over the skin of the lamb and push the garlic in as deeply as you can. Don’t be a slacker – make it look like a hedgehog. Roast at 450°-500°F for about 90 minutes, depending on weight. The skin should be crisply golden and the inside pink, not bloody.

You’re on your own with the roasties. I’ve instructed dozens of cooks and they cannot replicate mine. I peel them, cut them in chunks, and put them in a separate baking pan from the joint with a couple of tablespoons of drippings and put them in with the roast on the top shelf. Every 15 minutes or so I shake the pan and flip them around so that they brown evenly. The result is a very crisp outside and a soft floury inside.

I’ve never liked the classic mint sauce with lamb, although you can serve it if you want. I cook a gravy by making a dark roux with pan drippings and flour (equal amounts), then add stock, mashed garlic, and fresh rosemary, and simmer until medium thick (pints of it usually).

I tend to prefer a green vegetable, usually spinach or Brussels sprouts, as an accompaniment.

Always, always, always make shepherd’s pie with the leftovers and Scotch broth with the bone —