"The Egg and I"
That is the title from the wonderful autobiography by Betty MacDonald,
“The Egg and I”. The egg is a symbol of rebirth and renewal celebrated for centuries by many different cultures around the world. Hundreds of organisms reproduce by means of eggs, insects, many fish, most reptiles, amphibians and birds.
We tend to think of mammals giving birth to live offspring and feeding their young on milk, but the platypus and echidna defy the norm and lay eggs.
Spring is the season of awakening, consequently the egg plays a large part in spring celebrations. The creation of fabulous, intricately decorated Easter eggs to be presented to favored rulers, lovers, or patrons is still practiced in Slavic countries. Constructed of gold, silver, or platinum and festooned with precious stones, these eggs can bring tens of thousands of dollars at auction houses.
Several eastern European cultures elaborately decorate eggs with dyes. The Ukrainians are noted for their Pysanka eggs. These are dyed in complex geometric and artful designs using wax resist techniques. Special pens are filled with melted wax and used to draw the design onto the surface. After dyeing with the lightest color (usually white), more design is drawn on and the egg dyed with the next darkest color (perhaps light yellow), then the next darker color and so forth. Finally, as the last step after as many as ten colors, the egg is washed in very hot water to remove the layers of wax, revealing the overall design. Many years ago, Sally Bowman taught an adult education program at the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center demonstrating how to dye Pysanka style eggs.
As elaborate and detailed as these crafts are, there is satisfying, simple pleasure in dyeing Easter Eggs in the traditional Appalachian folk method. The following, firsthand account is from Revonda’s memory of her mountain granny.
Dyeing Easter Eggs with Grandma Lily
Near Easter when I was about five years old (in 1951!) my family loaded up our car and headed south to Minneapolis, NC, to visit my paternal grandparents. (It was a looong trip, taking about nine hours.) My grandparents didn’t live near a road... we parked our car on a neighbor’s land, then walked up, up, up beside a bubbly, little mountain stream until it widened out and was shallow enough to wade across. They had no electricity, no telephone, no indoor heating system...they just lived simply.
I was very close to Grandma Lily and spent much time with her, “helping” her do her chores: churning the butter, frying potatoes on the old cookstove, making biscuits, feeding the chickens, looking for their eggs, and everything else that she did during the day. But the best part of all was the stories she told while we worked. (She had seven children and had oodles of stories about them.) One of the stories that I remember was about dyeing Easter eggs...the old-fashioned way. Truly though, they didn’t have enough money to buy store-bought egg dyes, so they did it another way.
Grandma Lily (her mother was a full-blooded Cherokee) and her young’uns collected the black husks that covered walnuts, saved onion skins, opened a quart of home-canned grape juice, a jar of beets, and chopped up red cabbage. They produced these colors:
-black husks that covered walnuts.........brown
-finely chopped red cabbage......blue
-grape juice....... lavender to brown
-finely diced red beets.........tan to reddish
-onion skins.........copper to orange
They covered the workspace with a pad of newspaper and had handy several old rags to catch the drips. About three or four cups of each item was cooked (along with the egg) till the juice looked dark, about 30 minutes. The juice was drained and cooled, put in a jar, two tablespoons of white vinegar were added to each, and a warm, hard-boiled egg was placed in it. The jars were refrigerated overnight in the spring-box cooler. The next morning the egg was fished out then placed onto a rack to dry. The eggs we dyed were brown eggs and not quite as bright as the white eggs you get from the store. As a final last step, take a rag with a drop of vegetable oil to polish your eggs.
I’m sure that there are other things you could dye with, but when all our eggs were added to a basket, they were really pretty. On Easter morning whether we shelled and ate them with hot biscuits and jelly, or hid them in the grass, they were special because we had dyed them ourselves.
Dyeing eggs naturally was a simple science lesson that set our minds to working. A couple of years later I was making “ink” from pokeberries, and staining cloth with pounded pine tree needles. (I have always dreamed of having sheep and dyeing their wool naturally. Did this spring from dyeing Easter eggs with Grandma Lily? Perhaps.)
Photos by the author except where noted.