Tag Archives: dessert

Norwegian Christmas Dessert

Text:

“My dad’s side of the family is Norwegian; we have a big family reunion for Christmas. We have a dessert tradition where you hide a nut in one of the desserts and then pass out a bunch of little portions of the dessert and if you have the nut, you win a prize. There is a kid prize and an adult prize. The prize differs – nowadays it’s money or a gift card but it used to be a toy for the kids and a bottle of wine or something for the adults.”

Context:

EK is a 19-year-old American student at USC. She described a family tradition that occurred during Christmas celebrations. She believes the family tradition of hiding a nut in the dessert comes from her Norwegian roots. She was raised in Northern California. 

Interpretation:

This is a tradition I remember hearing of at one point in my life, but I have never done it myself. Traditions like this are extra special because they connect you to your family’s past – in this case, Norway. It can be touching to do a tradition like this and think of all the ancestors who came before you who did something similar. Interestingly enough, when I tried to look this tradition up, it seemed that it exists in both Norway (“Norwegian Christmas Traditions”, n.d.) and Sweden (Duxbury, n.d.). It is obvious that traditions like these have variation across nearby cultures and they have likely existed predating some of the countries themselves. Also interesting is that the words for the pudding the nut is found in are quite similar – “risengrynsgrøt” in Norway and “Risgrynsgröt” in Sweden. While my informant didn’t specify what kind of nut, it seems it is generally an almond. And in both cases, it seems common to do the desert tradition around Christmas, with a reward for the winner. My informant’s family’s prize isn’t the same as either the Norwegian prize (Marzipan Pig) or the Swedish one (some sort of task). Her family prize is different each year and there is a prize for kids and adults separately, which means there are two hidden nuts and two winners. Thus, we can see the hallmark multiplicity and variation in this holiday tradition. This tradition is likely widespread in the Scandinavian countries and was brought here when ancestors migrated to the United States. 

Annotations/References:

Duxbury, John. “Rice Pudding or Porridge (Risgrynsgröt).” SwedishFood.com, Swedish Food, www.swedishfood.com/swedish-food-recipes-desserts/389-rice-pudding. 

“Norwegian Christmas Traditions.” Visitoslo.com, Oslo Vistor Centre, www.visitoslo.com/en/articles/christmas-traditions/. 

Traditional Arabic Dessert – Ka’ak

Text/Context

EM – Ka’ak is a traditional Arabic pastry that is usually a cookie. However there is a version that is more like a sweet bread that is traditionally made for Easter. This is the version that’s been baked in my family for generations. My mom would watch her grandmother make it (she wasn’t allowed to touch it until it was done). It’s always a special time of year and a special day when it’s made. It takes most of the day and the whole house smells delightful.
Also in my family, we usually make a quadruple batch.
First, the heat in the house is turned up to at least 70°F (this is the one day a year the heat is turned up above 64° in my house). The dough, using specifically King Arthur flour (no other brand is allowed) whole milk, sugar, and a bunch of spices including anise and mahlab (crushed cherry seeds) is made early in the morning. Then it’s covered in every extra blanket, quilt, and wool coat in the house, because if the dough catches cold, it’s ruined.
After the first rise, it’s rolled into balls, and set on baking sheets for the second rise. After that, the balls are padded onto a special homemade ka’ak press made of chicken wire, then set to rise again. They’re baked and cooled, and then they’re glazed in a milk, sugar, and rose water mixture, dried, and enjoyed. We distribute it to everyone in our family and community.
Interviewer – You said the sweet bread version is usually just for Easter. Does your family make it just for easter? Or is there some other cause for celebration with ka’ak? Is “special time of year and a special day” a particular day each year, or an arbitrary day and it is just the recipe that makes the time special?
EM – The ka’ak we make is traditionally the Easter version but we usually make it at Christmas because mom had more time. We don’t make it on a specific day but because we really only make it once a year that day becomes special.
Interviewer – Why a quadruple batch?
EM – We make a quadruple batch because we give it to a lot of people. We even ship some out to family in California (From Massachusetts).
Interviewer – Since even the kind of flour is so strict, and your mother was not allowed to touch the dough as a child, does that mean there is no change allowed to the recipe?
EM – The only change to the recipe is that my great grandmother always used ghee but we use regular unsalted butter.
Interviewer – Have you learned the recipe, or done it on your own?
EM – I’ve learned the recipe, though I don’t know it by heart yet, and have made it with my mom and then with my aunt in California, when I visited and brought the spices with me from home.I got pulled aside at the airport because of them. They didn’t believe me when I said they were spices.
Interviewer – Who counts as community, when it comes to distributing the ka’ak?
EM – We give ka’ak to neighbors, some people at our church, and like I said, family, including those in California.
Interviewer – Do you feel that the recipe is part of your Arab heritage?
EM – Yes this recipe and experience is absolutely part of my heritage. All of my family’s recipes are either in our heads, or in the case of ka’ak and other desserts, the recipe is written down but no directions are given, so the only way to learn to make them is to observe and learn from our elders, making special bonds and memories.

Analysis

This dessert is made only once a year and I did not collect this story during that time. The story was not performed with the actual food but rather in a context of discussing favorite foods.
Ka’ak is an example of food connecting a person to their family and their heritage. The informant has never travelled to Lebanon, and knows only a few words in Arabic, but is proud of their heritage and feels connected when they learn the recipes that are passed down through family, learned by memory, and made with and for their family. The informant is also excited to share the dessert—and part of their heritage—with people outside of their family.
It is also an interesting case when the food itself becomes cause for celebration, because it is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, so the dessert becomes very, very special.

Watergate Salad

Text/Context

EM – Watergate salad is a tradition in my family that has been a controversy for years and years. Every Easter, my Aunt brings a dish that mainly consists of marshmallows and is dyed green. The name of this concoction is Watergate salad and every year my aunt puts it on the dinner table arguing that it is meant as a side dish with dinner. Everyone else argues that it’s a dessert. The same arguments are made every year and the issue has never been resolved to this day.
Interviewer – What are some of the arguments your family makes for and against Watergate salad being a salad instead of a dessert?
EM – My aunt argues that it’s green, so its a salad. Everyone else says it’s sweet, made of marshmallows and jello, so it’s a dessert.
Interviewer – Does anyone besides your aunt eat it as a side at dinner, or do people wait until dessert, or do people not even eat it and it’s kinda just a prop?
EM – A couple of my cousins sometimes take a minuscule scoop at dinner. Most other wait til dessert.
Interviewer – Is it only an Easter meal?
EM – Ya, only Easter.
Interviewer – Do you know any other families who have a similar recipe at their Easter meal?
EM – I’ve never heard of anyone else having it.
Interviewer – Is it always present at Easter, and is it mainly a yearly joke that everyone still enjoys, or is this serious debate?
EM – It’s always at Easter when my aunt comes. And it’s both a joke and a debate that still gets laughs.
Interviewer – Does anyone else know the recipe or just your aunt?
EM – As far as I know, my aunt is the only one.

Analysis

This family’s traditional dish is only for Easter, so it was not collected in a natural context. However, the informant and I were talking about favorite foods, which veered into dishes we eat only at certain times or events.
Watergate salad is named for its controversial status as a “salad” or a “dessert.” This folk group consists only of the informant’s immediate and extended family, and close friends who attend their Easter dinner.
The dish is not a regular recipe meant only to be eaten. It is also a joke. The family engages in playful debate about the salad and may refuse to eat it during or after dinner, but it gets eaten nonetheless. The dish brings the family closer together, because it is an inside joke, and always gets laughs no matter the stance.

Gifting Desserts – Indian Tradition

Context: 

My informant, AS, is a 19-year-old Indian male who grew up in Mumbai, though he has lived in Southern California for the past three years. His family is Muslim, and he has also had lots of interaction with Hindu culture also. This piece was collected during a facetime call, when I asked him to share some traditions that he has noticed as different between his home culture in India and the US. I refer to myself as SW in the text.

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Main Piece:

AS: “So, it is tradition, not just for Indian Muslims but for any Indian, to gift desserts to the people they know, when something good happens to them. Like if I get a new job, it’s gonna be tradition for me to send like a box of sweets to my neighbor, my aunt, my uncle, my friend. It’s just a tradition.”

SW: “So when something good happens to you… then you send stuff to other people.”

AS: Yes… Not just stuff, I have to send like, some sort of dessert.

SW: To how many other people?

AS: That just depends on like… if like, you’re really close with your neighbor you could send it to your neighbor, if you’re not close you’re not obligated to send anything. But like, it could be, just ya know your close family, or it could be the whole fucking world, depends on how close you are with them.

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Informant Explanation:

SW: But why do people do it?

AS: I don’t know why they do it, it’s just a thing like the… the saying is like ‘making your mouth sweet,’ that’s what it’s called. Like if you, something good happens to you, it could be anything it could be getting a new job or ya know, getting engaged or something like that. Even getting a promotion or buying a new car.

SW: That’s the reverse of the American thing. Cause the American thing is you send gifts to the person who had something good happen.

AS: Yeah. No, the person to whom it happens has to send. Not gifts, dessert.

SW: I guess like… that’s a way of showing status, right? Cause if something good happens to you, then it’s like well I now have excess to give… would be a way of showing status right?

AS: Not necessarily, no. It’s a… it’s more to do with sharing the joy. Not showing off. 

SW: What kinda desserts? What are we talking here?

AS: Mostly Indian desserts. That’s the tradition.

SW: Like what?

AS: Like… the most common one is (he showed me a picture of kaju katri or kaju katli). That is my favorite fucking dessert. It’s uh… it’s just a sweet. It’s made from like… ground cashews, and you make, like… I don’t know how it’s made it just tastes really nice. 

SW: It looks very good.

AS: Yeah so you get boxes of those, boxes of like, brown balls of fucking sugary flour… 

SW: So is like, Indian culture more focused on like…  ties between, like family and friends than American culture is? It feels like everything is more… 

AS: Ties between family, yes. Like, your… there’s a lot of emphasis on family in Indian culture. Especially Indian Hindu culture, there’s a lot of focus on family and traditions.

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Analysis: 

As AS mentioned, the tradition of gifting desserts serves to reinforce family ties and important social relationships. Indian culture places a very high importance on these social bonds, especially between family members, and it is therefore important to have traditions and rituals to remind people of these bonds and their obligations to one another. There is probably also an element of reciprocity that is established – since you are sharing your joy, you can expect other people to also share with you.

Iranian Baklava

Main description:

AB: “Are there any Iranian foods which have a special meaning to you?”

DB: “No. Haha, jk. Um, special meaning… probably baklava.”

AB: “Awesome! What can you tell me about Iranian Baklava?”

DB: “I’ll tell you how mamanjoun taught me to make it. First, you roll out some phyllo dough on the counter. The filling is pretty simple, you just mix walnuts, sugar, and I also add nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice if I’m feeling spicy. But anyway, you blend your nuts and sugar together, and you should get this really crunchy and sweet kinda filling. Now comes the hard part. You spoon a row of your filling onto a sheet of phyllo and you carefully roll it up. Phyllo is super thin, obviously, so I know mamanjoun dabs water on her fingers to help it stick to them, which can make it easier to work with. That part literally takes forever. But anyways, once you have all your phyllo walnut wraps, you cut them up into sections so you have nice little baklava rolls that fit in your hand. You bake them at, um, I think 350, but mamanjoun just says to watch them until they brown. Oh, and you top with a syrup. You make that just by boiling lemon juice, water, and sugar, and then you drizzle that over the baklava once it’s baked. I’ve made them once with mamanjoun and once by myself. They turned out really well the first time and… okay the second time. But my friends still really liked them.”

AB: “When would you say makes Iranian Baklava special?”

DB: “Listen, I’m not a baklava expert. It’s a hell of a lot better than the baklava they have at most restaurants, I’ll tell you that. Our baklava is crunchy when you bite into it, which I think makes it taste a lot better than baklava that’s just like… stuffed with sweet walnut powder or something. That stuff’s gross.”

AB: “When do you make baklava. Is it for any special occasion?”

DB: “Well, I guess mamanjoun makes it whenever there’s family visiting, really. I kinda think she just likes to show off, but also it’s everybody’s favorite food, so I get it. She’ll also make batches of baklava for us to take home sometimes because it’s so good. When I’ve made it, I made it because it was Thanksgiving and I wanted to bring a dessert while also showing off. It’s really a lot of work, so I don’t think anybody would be making it by themselves.”

Informant’s interpretation:

AB: “Why is baklava special to you and your family?”
DB: “Honestly, I’m just really proud I know how to make it. Like, I can’t cook any Iranian food for shit, but I can do baklava, lol. I feel like I worked really hard, and it’s nice to like…be able to share my family with my friends through, like, food.”

Personal interpretation:

Baklava is a common dish throughout Greece and much of the middle-east, so it isn’t  a uniquely Iranian dish. The informant, however, emphasizes a few techniques that make the dish unique, and he sees it as a part of his culture that he can easily share for others to appreciate.