In the run-up to Easter Sunday, Camille McDowell has been reviewing her shopping list, verifying ranks of volunteers, and generally trying to head off bedlam at a massive church breakfast beginning late Saturday night in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“We’ll feed close to a thousand people in varying shifts,” says McDowell, groaning in mock dread at the prospect of preparing endless plates of biscuits, country ham, scrambled eggs and sugar cake.
McDowell is responsible for fueling the troops that put on one of the nation’s largest and oldest Easter sunrise services. Thousands come for the event, hosted by the Home Moravian Church at Old Salem and observed every year, rain or shine, since 1771.
The Moravians – a Germanic people who fled religious persecution in the 18th
century in what is now the Czech Republic – came to America and established permanent settlements in Pennsylvania before spreading out to at least a dozen other states, Canada and elsewhere. In 1753, Moravians from Bethlehem, Pa., set up new colonies in a 100,000-acre tract of North Carolina wilderness that became known as Wachovia. In 1765, the Moravians developed Salem, which quickly became a regional center of religious life and commerce (Wachovia National Bank, now part of Wells Fargo, was founded a century later in Winston-Salem). Today, aspects of the community’s earliest years are preserved in Old Salem Museums & Gardens, a living history district of Winston-Salem.
The Easter celebration brings to life the Moravians’ enthusiasm for music and communal meals. Brass bands from a dozen Moravian churches scatter around Winston-Salem, sounding their trumpets beginning at 2 a.m. Each makes several stops to play hymns such as “Sleepers, Wake!”
“Originally, it was kind of like a wakeup call to announce that the sunrise service was about to assemble,” says Dick Joyce, 63, a band member who took up his trumpet at age 12. “People don’t need to take hours to prepare their buggies to drive into town” these days, he adds, but the centuries-old tradition remains intact.
At the 6:30 a.m. service, worshipers hear scripture, listen to the assembled bands play in rounds and sing hymns.
In the days leading up to Easter, and particularly on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, many congregations host a “lovefeast,” a celebration that features special “lovefeast” buns.
Lovefeast buns — a cross between a sweet roll and a hamburger bun, spiced with nutmeg, mace, orange and lemon peel — roll out of Old Salem’s C. Winkler Bakery by the dozens during Easter week. The bakery, just down the cobblestone road from the village green where the Easter service begins, also specializes in Moravian sugar cake, a gooey coffee cake that starts with a yeast-raised doughnut dough. Potato is the secret ingredient. “The potato makes it tender,” explains bakery manager John Wald.
After the cake dough’s first rise, it gets pressed into a jellyroll pan, where it rises again. Bakers use their fingertips to make irregular indentations. Glossed with melted butter and sprinkled with a mixture of brown sugar and cinnamon, the indentations become little wells of syrupy sweetness in the oven.
The cake and the lovefeast buns feature prominently in the breakfast that McDowell organizes for the band members and other workers who put on the Easter sunrise service. The breakfast also marks the only event for which the Winkler bakery makes traditional Southern baking powder biscuits, a concession to McDowell’s need to feed the masses.
McDowell swings into action long before the service even begins. She starts on Saturday morning with a visit to the Moravian cemetery called “God’s Acre.” This is where the worship service ends, so McDowell and scores of others gather to scrub their relatives’ headstones, all flat, white and uniformly plain to emphasize equality before the Lord.
In the evening, she heads to the nearby Home Moravian Church to start preparing the breakfast, sponsored by the Salem Congregation and its 13 churches.
McDowell, a seventh-generation Moravian, has helped with the annual preparations since she was a teenager. Now 49, she inherited the oversight task about six years ago. “This is a family affair,” says McDowell, whose husband and 15-year-old daughter also pitch in. “The coffee makers are my cousins. That way, we know where to find somebody if they don’t show up,” she jokes.
They make vats of strong Moravian coffee, tempered with considerable amounts of sugar and cream. It may be enough to fill the iconic, 7-foot-3-inch-tall pot that stands at a prominent intersection. It was made in 1858 by tinsmiths Samuel and Julius Mickey to advertise their trade.
McDowell recruits about 15 cooks in all, plus more servers, to handle 90 dozen eggs, 120 pounds of ham, 900 biscuits and 10 dozen lovefeast buns.
The team starts cooking “Saturday night, Sunday , I’ve never been able to distinguish since we don’t go to bed,” McDowell says. They begin preparing country ham at 9:30 p.m. and scrambled eggs around 11, breaking to gulp down a communal meal to fortify themselves.
The hungry hordes arrive in orchestrated waves from midnight until 4:30 a.m.: police who accompany the brass bands, several local bands that stop in for a biscuit snack, the WSJS-AM radio crew that broadcasts the festivities and service, then a full breakfast at 4:30 for up to 400 band members, and biscuit or sandwiches for Boy Scouts who help direct worshipers.
When the meals are all served and done, the kitchen staff cleans up and scrambles outdoors for the service and the reverent procession up to God’s Acre. The hope is that the brass bands and Moravian coffee will keep McDowell and her crew standing long enough to celebrate.
Moravian treats and where to find them:
● C. Winkler Bakery at Old Salem, shop.oldsalem.org
● Dewey’s Bakery, www.deweys.com
● Mrs. Hanes’ Moravian Cookies, www.hanescookies.com
● Salem Baking Co., www.salembaking.com
● Visit Winston-Salem, www.visitwinstonsalem.com
Note: This article has been amended to reflect a correction. “Lovefeasts” generally are offered by Moravian congregations in the days leading up to Easter. The sunrise service does not include a lovefeast.
Potatoes figure into this Moravian yeast cake. So does convenience, which is why the updated recipe calls for instant potato flakes. It’s adapted from “The Old Salem Museums & Gardens Cookbook” (2008).
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- ½ cup warm water (110 degrees F)
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ¾ cup warm water
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons dry powdered milk
- ¼ cup instant potato flakes
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
- 2 large eggs
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (divided)
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
In a large bowl, combine yeast, warm water and sugar. Set aside until yeast bubbles, 5 to 7 minutes. Add remaining water, sugar, powdered milk, potato flakes, salt, melted butter, eggs and 1 cup of the flour. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat 2 minutes, until smooth. Using a wooden spoon, stir in remaining 2 cups of flour. The dough will be sticky.
Lightly oil the inside of another large bowl. Transfer the dough to it, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Lightly butter a 17-by-12-inch shallow pan. Punch down dough and smooth it into the pan. Cover with the kitchen towel and let rise another 30 minutes in a warm place.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix brown sugar and cinnamon; set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
When the dough has risen, make shallow indentations in the surface with your fingertips. Drizzle or brush with remaining melted butter, then sprinkle with brown sugar-cinnamon mixture.
Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven; let cool slightly, slice and serve.