AK: The sweet traditions of Russian Orthodox Easter

Some of Abby Slater’s Easter bread. (Photo by Victoria Petersen, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Russian Orthodox Easter comes April 8, and families across Alaska are preparing for the event with Easter Bread. The symbolic bread came to the state with Russian colonists, but has taken on new life with Alaskans who have added their own traditions to it.

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Scraping the sides of the bowl, Abby Slater is forming a dough of milk, sugar, yeast and flour. It’s Slater’s first time making Easter bread. She’s observed and helped her Aleut family make it many times before though.

“My earliest memory of Easter bread was actually later in life, because we didn’t reconnect with my aunt until I was a little bit older,” Slater said. “She was the one who had the recipe for the Easter bread. My grandma died before I was born, my native grandma, my kukax. So she didn’t get to pass that along to us grandkids,”

The recipe her aunt uses is the same the family has been using for generations. Originally from Kashega, a small village near Dutch Harbor, Slater’s family traditionally used dried berries and candied fruits in their Easter bread.

“It’s interesting hearing all the different variations of it because at the end of the day, it’s just a bread recipe, right? We talk about things about how some people put berries in it, or candied fruit,” Slater said. “That’s the version I grew up with. And other people are like ‘that’s not how you make it.’ And other people frost it, and in my mind I’m like ‘that’s not how you make it.’ But that is how people make it, it’s just not what I grew up with, you know?”

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Anchorage. (Photo by Victoria Petersen, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Diane Chris says that the Easter bread in Prince William Sound is elaborately decorated. She’s a Matushka — priest’s wife — at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox church in Anchorage.

“On Easter, when you’re in a church, I’ve been in the churches, they’re small in the Sound. I’ve been there, and you’re fasting, and all you can smell is this sweet kulich, and the frostings and it’s just amazing,” Chris said. “Normally they put a candle on the top of them, and it’s lit for the blessing. It’s very festive.”

Easter bread, also known as kulich, is a decadent, egg-rich, dairy-rich, yeast-risen bread. Mother Capitolina, the only nun at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox church in Anchorage, says the bread symbolizes Easter.

“We’re doing everything we have fasted from: butter, eggs. Now it’s the resurrection,” Mother Capitolina said.

Chris helps make food for a bake sale the church is having. She says the bread is baked in coffee tins, representing the tomb Jesus resurrected from.

Traditionally, Easter bread is always made by women and is a skill mothers pass down to daughters.

Every year, St. Innocent church has an annual bake sale where church members bake Easter bread, fry bread, piroshkis, pirok and other traditional foods. The money from the sale goes to their church and is open to the public.

“We have lots of people throughout the state that have grown up with the bread, from the villages,” Chris said. “They have different types of breads that they’re used to, so we have a variety here that are baked by the ladies of the church.”

It’s not just the Alaska Russian Orthodox population that enjoys the tradition of Easter Bread. Chris says that St. Innocent’s annual bake sale is always the Saturday before unorthodox Easter.

“We try to do it prior to everybody else’s Easter, because they like it for their Easter,” Chris said. “It’s become a tradition for a lot of people who aren’t necessarily orthodox.”

There are over 50,000 followers of Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska, and 49 parishes set up across the state. The first Russian Orthodox Church established in Alaska was on Kodiak island in 1795. Many of these Russian Orthodox churches are baking Easter bread in mass quantities; some are even shipping it.

St. Tikhon, another Russian Orthodox Church in Anchorage, also sells Easter bread. Via their Facebook page, St. Tikhon takes orders for Easter bread and sometimes ships to villages across Alaska.

The bread is blessed on Easter Sunday by members of the Russian Orthodox church and then shared with the congregation. Easter bread is only eaten by the Russian Orthodox between Easter and Pentecost, which is 49 days after Easter.

Slater isn’t Russian Orthodox, but the making of Easter bread ties her to her Alaska Native family.

“I feel really connected, I guess,” Slater said. “Maybe that sounds silly ‘cause it’s just bread. But I feel like I’m participating in something– It’s kind of the way that I feel when I cook anything that’s an old recipe. You just feel like you’re part of something that’s older than you, and bigger than you.”

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