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Jack Zaleski, Published March 30 2013

Zaleski: Hot cross buns and sweet currant juice

I grew up in a ragout of Roman Catholicism that was spiced with ethnicity. Until about the mid-1960s, when my generation was shedding ancestry as a vital element of identity, Catholic churches in my blue-collar hometown in southern New England were distinguished by their connection to the old countries. Sacred Heart was the Polish Catholic church. St. Mary’s was where the Irish worshipped. St. Ann’s said at least one Sunday Mass in Italian. There was even a small Lithuanian congregation, which I knew about because my neighbors were Lithuanian Catholics.

But at Eastertime, every Catholic home served up hot cross buns from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. The traditional pastry featured a symbolic cross of white frosting on top. No matter the nationality of the family, hot cross buns were on the table.

My sister and I loved our Polish grandmother’s recipe best. While most buns featured raisins, Grandma Z used sweet black currants. She’d serve up hot buns fresh out of the oven, along with colored-glass tumblers of warmed currant juice (she’d buy jugs of the imported elixir from a Polish market) for my sister and me. We were in hot cross bun heaven – faces frosting-smeared, lips and teeth stained dark by currant juice.

We’d sing the ancient English folk song, “Hot Cross Buns.” Remember?

Hot Cross Buns!

Hot cross buns!

One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,

Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters,

Give them to your sons

One ha’ penny,

Two ha’ penny,

Hot cross buns!

My grandmother sang in Polish, trying to teach us the version she learned as a girl on the family farm south of Warsaw. We didn’t get it.

The lore and legend of hot cross buns can be traced to 18th-century Britain (the song) and the pastry to 16th-century London. Folklore is rife with superstitions about the power of the crossed buns to ward off evil and illness, and to ensure friendship. It was said taking hot cross buns on a sea voyage protected against shipwrecks. Other old world practices included kissing the bun before eating because of the cross. My Italian Uncle Vito did that.

My sister and I did not take up the habit of kissing hot cross buns. And the folk song’s Polish lyrics did not stick. But the memories did.


Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.