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West Virginia family remembers baking traditions at Easter

Fred Sauceman • Mar 21, 2018 at 10:27 AM

New outfits in soft pastels, the vinegary smell of egg dye, and chocolate bunnies commonly herald the coming of Easter.

But in West Virginia’s Italian bakeries, anise-flavored bread is equally prized. It’s a centerpiece of the Christian resurrection celebration.

For the staff at Tomaro’s Bakery in Clarksburg, Easter bread represents not only the promise of renewal but also a connection back to the Tomaro and Brunetti families in Italy.

The scent of anise seed permeates Tomaro’s Bakery beginning about three weeks before Easter every year. But the licorice-flavored seeds don’t come from the local grocery story, says John Brunett, fourth-generation co-owner of Tomaro’s. (The ending vowel in the family name was dropped when the Brunettis came to America.)

Tomaro’s opened in 1914 in the Glen Elk section of Clarksburg, and for most of that long history, in addition to baking the state’s famed pepperoni rolls, Tomaro’s has been turning out Easter bread.

“Anise is an important ingredient in Easter bread, and to get the anise, my mother has to call my father’s relatives in Italy, which is very complicated for her because she doesn’t speak Italian,” John tells me. “So my mother will have one of our aunts call, who does speak Italian, to the Tomaro relatives who are still in Italy.

“We will have the anise shipped over, clean it, and freeze it, so that we can have it in time for Easter, for Easter bread.”

John and his mother Janice use the family’s age-old, unchanged recipe to make the bread, even down to the brown eggs that their ancestors insisted on. The bread is made into three shapes: a standard shape, a wreath, and a braided form that represents the Baby Jesus.

“We are a Roman Catholic Italian family, and for us, Easter bread means new birth into spring,” says John, who describes the sweetened product as a mix between a bread and a dessert.

During the time leading up to the Easter holiday, Tomaro’s bakes Easter bread on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The Saturday bake sells out by Monday and the Tuesday bake by Thursday.

“My mother Janice tries to add a little more to each year’s bake, and yet we always sell out,” says John, whose great-grandfather, Anthony “Tony” Tomaro, a former coal miner, started the business.

Despite the labor and the expense involved in baking Easter bread, the family is committed to continuing the tradition. In the fall, the cycle will begin all over again with that telephone call back home to Italy for the precious anise seed.

Tomaro’s pepperoni rolls and other baked goods are sold at supermarkets and discount stores in the Clarksburg area, but Easter bread is available only at the bakery, in the historic building that was constructed on the eve of World War I.

Fred Sauceman’s latest book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”

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