Yen Azzaro tried to learn her mother’s native Mandarin Chinese in college, but never mastered it. “I never learned how to read or write Chinese. Sometimes I feel inadequate or guilty about this,” said Azzaro. “But most of the time I just feel relieved that I understand some Chinese. Many people my age worked so hard to assimilate; they lost all knowledge of their native tongue,” she said.
Those who hold on to traditions often have a way of adapting and updating them to reflect new cultural experiences.
One way to track those changes and adaptations is through the way people cook and share food. We heard from a Sicilian family that once made 700 cannolis and another that (enthusiastically) honors their Sicilian roots by making hundreds of sausages.
Our culture project incorporated many stories from people who keep up a family food tradition and put their own spin on it.
Sharlene Innes writes: “The most important Polish tradition for my family and for me is Wigilia, the Christmas Eve celebration. We come together to share a meal which now includes items like a large nacho prepared by my Mexican-American brother-in-law.”
An updated tradition can help to make culture more meaningful for younger generations. Rosalyn Park hated stuffing mandu as a child. Eventually, though, making mandu became a special, Christmastime tradition that Park looks forward to. It’s now a way for Park’s family to come together once a year.
“Over the years, our Christmas making mandu tradition has expanded, and we now invite close friends to participate in the event, open a bottle or two of wine, and make merry. The big bowl would come out, the mandu skins laid forth, and we’d sit down for another several hours of mandu-making,” said Park
Park’s mother added a twist to keep everyone in the mandu-stuffing spirit. “My Buddhist-born, now Catholic mother forced us to wear Santa hats. Never mind that our foreheads itched under the synthetic white fur, we were her “elves” and this was how we now did it.”
Some culinary traditions are difficult to keep, no matter how hard you try. Like a foreign language, complex recipes can become easier with total cultural immersion. We heard from many children of immigrants who never learned these skills as they grew up in the U.S. Most regret it.
Brigitte Kirchgatterer has found her mother’s German recipes challenging to master. “My Mom passed in 2005 and she really was active in trying to retain a lot of the Germanic Cooking,” said Kirchgatterer. “I find I just do not have the time to prepare the same labor intense or process laden dishes even though I miss them. It makes me very sad.”