The foods that govern Greek Orthodox Easter are many: an organ soup called mayirista, tsoureki (a sweet bread), eggs dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ and side dishes such as roasted potatoes with citrus and oregano and the spinach pie spanakopita.
And lamb. There must be lamb.
“By the time we get to Easter, we’re ready to eat,” said Georgea Pappas Haby, whose extended family, the Greek-American Pappas clan, has been a restaurant powerhouse in Houston for decades. “It’s heavy on the meat.”
By meat, she means lamb. Spit-roasted whole lamb. Roasted leg of lamb. Lamb chops.
“Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God, the sacrificial lamb,” said Haby, the head of culinary research and development for the Pappas family of restaurants that include Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, Pappasito’s Cantina, Pappas Bar-B-Q, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and Yia Yia Mary’s, among others. “So lamb is connected in that way.”
For the Greek Orthodox Church, part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Easter is celebrated on a different day than Western Christianity. This year, Orthodox Easter falls on Sunday, 40 days after the start of Great Lent marked by observations of fasting and prayer.
For the Orthodox faithful, fasting is especially strict. “It’s the idea that you’re connecting your mind and body and getting closer to Christ,” Haby said. “Fasting from food is a tool. It’s about personal growth and becoming closer to Christ.”
But the fasting ends in a lavish manner on Holy Pascha (Easter), the most important holiday of the Christian year.
“We are ready to celebrate,” Haby said.
Besides lamb, the Pappas family’s Easter feast this year will include dishes such as ground beef and rice-filled dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), pastitsio (the pasta casserole often referred to as Greek lasagna), lemon-roasted potatoes, spanakopita and aveglemono (Greek egg and lemon soup). Haby said the family’s matriarch, Mary Pappas, was a considerable home cook whose aveglemono was the best in the family. Mary, whose sons Harris and Chris Pappas run the restaurant empire, died at 97; Yia Yia Mary’s is named for her.
Here’s Haby’s recipe for braised lamb shanks — you can also order them at Yia Yia Mary’s, 4747 San Felipe, if you don’t feel like cooking.