Easter eggs 2020.1: Mussorgsky chicken with crocuses

The first of two entertaining Easter egg postings on material that came in my mail today. This one is sweet and playful; the other one is raunchy and homoerotic. There’s a lot you can do with eggs.

Ee2020.1 is a Jacquie Lawson animated ecard for Easter, illustrating the Mussorgsky piece “Ballet of (the) Chicks in their Shells” / “Ballet of (the) Unhatched Chicks” from Pictures at an Exhibition with chick after chick hatching, while one egg rolls about in struggle, with its chick finally emerging triumphantly among crocus flowers:


(#1) Eggs, chicks, and crocuses: all symbols of spring and (re)birth

(The sound track has an orchestral version of “Ballet”, with cheeping sound effects.)

(Many thanks to Benita Bendon Campbell, who regularly supplies me with these charming Lawson cards on special occasions.)

Pictures. From Wikipedia:

Pictures at an Exhibition … is a suite of ten pieces (plus a recurring, varied Promenade) composed for piano by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1874.

The suite is Mussorgsky’s most famous piano composition, and has become a showpiece for virtuoso pianists. It has become further known through various orchestrations and arrangements produced by other musicians and composers, with Maurice Ravel’s 1922 version for full symphony orchestra being by far the most recorded and performed.

The composition is based on pictures by the artist, architect, and designer Viktor Hartmann.

“Ballet”. From the Garth Newel Music Center site “On the artwork that inspired Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (part 2)”, about “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells”:


(#2) The Hartmann Chicks sketch

Hartmann made 17 sketches for the Ballet “Trilby”, which was based on the short story by French author Charles Nodier. The ballet featured the children of the Imperial Ballet School, and costumes were designed for them to look like butterflies, birds, and unhatched chicks.

You can listen to Byron Janis playing the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” in the original piano version here (#3). (Orchestal settings of Pictures are much more common, but I am, or at least was, a pianist.)

Mussorgsky chicken with crocuses. That’s what the Jacquie Lawson ecard offers us. And that sounds like the name of a dish.

Mussorgsky chicken would be some kind of Russian chicken preparation, and it turns out that there are lots of recipes available on the net for something called Russian chicken: chicken breasts baked with a dressing mix — made of onion soup mix and Russian dressing (mayonnaise, ketchup or chili sauce, horseradish), usually plus apricot jam or jelly — and served on rice. I assume this is called Russian because of the Russian dressing (Russian dressing, meanwhile, was invented in New Hampshire just over 100 years ago, and is  presumably Russian because of its red(dish) color).

I am not recommending this dish — I hadn’t heard of it until a few hours ago, and have never tasted it — merely reporting on it.

(Mussorgsky chicken could just be a synonym for chicken Kiev, “The Great Gate of Kiev” being one of the movements of Pictures. But chicken Kiev references Ukraine, not Russia, while Mussorgsky was Russian, not Ukrainian.)

In any case, what about the crocuses? From Arthur Lee Jacobson’s site, in “Plant of the Month: February 2013: Edible Crocus”:

The colorful blossoms of crocus, peeping from the ground, are beloved signs of spring. They cheer us, and reward magnificently the low cost and ease of their initial planting, with an ever-increasing abundance of beauty. What’s more remarkable, and too little known, is that they are edible. Hence this article. It is odd, that over the decades of my gardening life in Seattle, surely I have planted more than 1,000 Crocus bulbs. Here and there I had read in books that they were edible. I have never tasted any. But at least I did some research into the matter to hereby share with you.

Below I enumerate all 19 species that I was able to find described as edible in books or articles. Inasmuch as the species are related to one another, and not known to be toxic except as noted under Crocus sativus, it appears safe to experiment carefully with other species than those listed.

It so happens that most of the species and hybrids widely planted in European and North American flower gardens, are not those kinds recorded as eaten wild by people in their native lands.

The only Crocus species world famous as regards human consumption, is Saffron Crocus, Crocus sativus. Ironically, this highly esteemed spice and dye plant is also poisonous if too much is ingested.

The main human food use of Crocus species has been using the underground portions, popularly called bulbs, and scientifically called corms, as a concentrated caloric source, tasting like hazelnuts or chestnuts. This has occurred for thousands of years, as evidenced by archaeologic remains unearthed in the Kebara cave in Israel. The secondary use –but better known nowadays– is using the floral stigma of the saffron crocus (and its inferior substitute species) for dyeing and flavoring.

So Mussorgsky chicken and crocuses might describe a light supper of Russian chicken with a side of roasted crocus bulbs. De gustibus and all that.

5 Responses to “Easter eggs 2020.1: Mussorgsky chicken with crocuses”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I am not recommending this dish — I hadn’t heard of it until a few hours ago, and have never tasted it — merely reporting on it.

    I am going to be less circumspect about it than you are, and assert that it sounds perfectly dreadful.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, yes, appalling. Apparently, its great virtue is that it’s supposed to be easy to prepare, from ingredients that are staples in every American household. We all have bottles of Russian dressing and packets of onion soup mix, right? And probably some apricot jam or jelly. I know I’m a food snob and all that, but I have *never* had bottles of Russian dressing and packets of onion soup mix in my cupboard. Apricot jam, yes; I adore apricot jam, and you can get some first-class commercial products. But I shrink back from putting apricot jam on chicken breasts. (I can imagine a sweet-and-sour chicken breast dish that uses apricot jam, of the right sort, but “Russian chicken” is not that dish.)

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    Ironically, this highly esteemed spice and dye plant is also poisonous if too much is ingested.

    On a personal note, this elucidates for me a poem by Hermann von Gilm (known to me because of a setting by Richard Strauss that I worked on last year) called Zeitlose, which literally means “timeless” but is apparently a name for saffron. The poem describes the beauty of the saffron flower, but then goes on:

    Doch es ist Gift, was aus dem Kelch,
    Dem reinen, blinkt so rötlich.
    Die letzte Blum’, die letzte Lieb’,
    Sind beide schön, doch tödlich.

    (But it is poison, what shines so red from that pure cup. The last flower, the last love, are both beautiful, but deadly.)

    I had wondered if this could possibly refer to the same saffron that is used in cooking; apparently so.

  3. Sim Aberson Says:

    Every Passover, my grandmother made a dish of chicken with apricot jam.

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