Staying Connected To The Old Culture, While Fitting In With The New

When we asked what cultural traditions people have kept or lost, many wrote about the difficulty of fitting into American culture while staying connected to their own roots.

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.

Sausage making in Anette Kingsbury's family. Credit: Annette Kingsbury

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.”

Continue reading “Staying Connected To The Old Culture, While Fitting In With The New”

Lebanese Easter Cookies: Our Winning Family Recipe

Dianne Johns and her sister Holly dressed up in babushkas to make kaik

As part of our Your Family Story series, we collected recipes that have been passed down within families.This is our contest winner, Dianne Johns of Lansing is our winner. We’d still like your stories about family culture and traditions. Add it here.

The very best traditional Lebanese Easter food is the Easter cookies. They are called kaik. This is a two syllable word with a very subtle distinction between the syllables (kah-ick). The pronunciation is so similar to a slang word for a part of the male anatomy, that we rarely use it around the non-Lebanese.

I had never made kaik before. My sister, Holly made it once with the Lebanese-born cousins. They wouldn’t let her do anything but cook because they were afraid she would mess it up. Their cookies are perfection.

My sister Holly, her sister in law Linda, my friend Susie and I all got together at Holly’s house with my mother’s recipe, Linda’s experience, 10 pounds of flour, huge packages of mashed dates and walnuts, and a “What the hell” spirit. We were joined by another sister,Carol, and another Lebanese friend, Dolores, who is also an expert.

Living in Michigan is a real advantage when you are making Lebanese food. There are more Arabs in Michigan than any other state, so the ingredients for Lebanese food are usually available. These cookies call for finely ground mahleb (cherry pits) and anise. No problem. Just go to the bulk food store on Pennsylvania Avenue.

This recipe makes around 50 fairly large cookies. Continue reading “Lebanese Easter Cookies: Our Winning Family Recipe”

Cake, Shortbread, or Pastry? Mazurek Is All That, And More

As part of our Your Family Story series, we’re collecting recipes that have been passed down within families. Send in your mother’s, grandfather’s, or cousin’s famous recipe for goulash, pozole, dumplings or any dish that your family has enjoyed.

We’re collecting recipes until midnight tomorrow. We’ll publish all the recipes. The winner, to be chosen by the Changing Gears team, will be announced here and on our partner websites. They’ll collect a grab bag of public radio goodies.

Today, Changing Gears Senior Editor Micki Maynard shares this recipe for Mazurek:

My father’s family, which is of French descent, has been in the United States for many generations, settling primarily in Massachusetts. But my mother is a first generation American. Her family came to the United States around 1905. Her father hailed from what was known as Byelorussia, and now Belorus, an area also known as White Russia.

My mom learned European dishes from her mother and New England recipes through my dad, so we enjoyed a varied menu at home. I’ve always heard my mother say what a good cook my grandmother was. But, I didn’t know until this year that my grandmother was co-owner of a bakery in Grand Rapids. The Northwestern Bakery stood on Leonard Street, although the building is no longer there.

Each Easter, my family gathers for brunch, and Mazurek (pronouncd mah-ZUR-eck) is always the last dish that is served. We sit over coffee and tea and enjoy this dense, rich pastry, very much like a soft shortbread. My mom was always the Mazurek baker, until she offered to teach me. She also shared the recipe with my brother, who baked the Mazurek that you see here.

Want to add Mazurek to your repertoire? Follow this recipe.

Continue reading “Cake, Shortbread, or Pastry? Mazurek Is All That, And More”

Arriving in a New Land, Alone at Seventeen

Most Americans have ethnic and cultural roots outside of the U.S. We’re asking you to share cultural traditions that are still important to you.

Changing Gears is looking for stories, recipes, songs, and pictures. We’ll be collecting these stories  on the Your Family Story page. They’ll also appear at and we’ll even put some on the air. You can share your story here.

In the early 1900’s our widowed great grandmother, Soledad Perez, left the USA and went back to La Piedad in Mexico to raise her four daughters: Luz, Angelina, Esther & Carmen.

In the winter of 1948 my mother, Esther, a young newly married 17 year-old, found herself in a Mexican border town boarding a train headed for the USA. Her husband (my father Antonio Ramirez Manzo) gave her an address of a Catholic parish in Detroit, MI.

My father had to stay at the border until his papers were fixed. My mother was alone and frightened but she came to the USA for a better future. She spoke no English and knew no one. But still, this frightened young seventeen year old came back to the country she was born in.

My father’s family comes from Sahuayo, Michuacan. His family surname Manzo is Italian. Many Manzos come from Colima, Mexico. My mothers family comes from La Piedad, Michuacan. Her father’s surname Perez is Spanish.
My father played guitar and sang traditional classical Mexican music. He retired from Ford Motor Company, but also supported our family with his music. He would play traditional Mexican music at social events & at the El Nibble Nook in Livonia, MI for many years.
-Carlos Manzo

35 Years of Letters Within a Midwestern Family

Jillian Jones Sisko of Michigan writes:

Letter-writing has always been an important part of my family’s legacy.

My mother discovered her family origins through letters written in the early 1900’s that were found in a desk drawer in an attic in Epernay, France. The letter was written by my grandfather and addresses to his brother. When my mother discovered the letters, she started communicating with her family.

When my oldest sister left for college in the 70’s, my father, Wayne Muren, began writing weekly letters just as my great grandfather did many years prior. The letters served as a source of inspiration for my sister and as well as a blanket of comfort.

After all five children grew up and graduated from college, several moved away. Wayne kept writing letters. To this day, 35 years later, I am blessed to still receive a weekly letter filled with newspaper/magazine articles. The no. 10 envelope that was once delivered to my college dormitory is now a large manila envelope packed with news and information.

Jillian's mother and her father Wayne with a stack of letters

The letters are sent to not only his children, but also to his 11 grandchildren. The letters are now mailed in large envelopes which accompany 10-20 newspaper clippings to keep the family up-to-date with current events as well as comic strips from a local artist.

This gift of communication is one that I hope will never stop arriving at my door for many years to come. This ritual is now our family tradition.

In Minnesota, South Korean Traditions with a Twist

Rosalyn Park of Minnesota writes:

My parents emigrated from South Korea to Iowa in the early 1960s. My mother struggled with the dualities of raising children the American-born way and being the wife of a traditional Korean man. Every night, she would cook two dinners: a Korean meal for my father, and an American one for us girls.

Over time, as my tastes expanded, I grew to truly appreciate Korean food.

One tradition in particular really epitomizes this shift. Growing up, my mother would make traditional Korean potstickers (mandu) once a year. It was a huge ordeal—everything was made by hand. We’d sit down and make mandu for hours.

Being the last of 3 daughters, I eventually found myself facing this daunting task alone. I’d come home from high school to see the big mandu bowl and be filled with dread—it was like a bad Chinese movie: Night of Three Million Eggrolls. I’d sit at the kitchen counter, hand stuffing each mandu by myself and thinking wearily of the unfair plight handed to Sister Number 3.

Continue reading “In Minnesota, South Korean Traditions with a Twist”

A Detroit Arab-American Who Was “Made By Motown”

Jeff Karoub writes:

I’m half-Arab, but maybe I should best be described as a Detroit Arab-American, because this is the place that helped to shape my family and my family helped shape.

Like any family of mixed ancestry, traditions have been blended and blunted, but being in a place with such a large, diverse population with roots in the Middle East has allowed us to keep things like the food front-and-center in our lives.

I’m grateful for being part of a family that is open to many cultural and religious traditions and I think we are stronger for it.

As my family’s 100th anniversary in the U.S. approached, I thought of its contribution to this place. My grandfather worked at Ford while he served as a Muslim minister and Arab-Muslim newspaper publisher. My father played French horn for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and so many classic Motown records.

All of it inspired a song I recently wrote called “Made by Motown.”

You can listen to Jeff’s song here.

The Cannoli Assembly Line: Efficient and Delicious

Michelle Guevara writes:

My great-grandfather migrated from Sicily. Like a lot of Italian migrants, he was poor but carved a name for himself and ended up having a large family.

I miss the big family gatherings. Most of us are grown now. Weddings and funerals are the only time the extended family gets together any more. The older generation held more of the old traditions together than we do now. I find that a shame. Those were some of my best memories.

I remember cannoli day, a tradition that my family and cousins continue to this day. Everyone brings a batch of cannoli dough and we set up an assembly line. A few roll the dough out then pass it along to those rolling the forms. They drop the rolls gently into the deep fryer.

Michelle demonstrates her cannoli rolling technique

Before the last batch is done, my cousins start dinner of spaghetti, meat balls or sausages, salad, and garlic bread. We fill our bellies to the point of bursting.

For dessert we eat…what else? Cannolis! By the end of the day, we pack the shells into boxes and divide them among the family. One day we made 700 shells.

-Michelle Guevara, Michigan

(In case you’re wondering—700 cannolis would add up to 4950 cubic inches of Italian dessert, or: one giant 3.5×1 ft cannoli.)

Most Americans have ethnic and cultural roots outside of the U.S. We’re asking you to share cultural traditions that are still important to you.

Changing Gears is looking for stories, recipes, songs, and pictures. We’ll be collecting these stories  on the Your Family Story page. They’ll also appear at and we’ll even put some on the air. You can share your story here.

How Much of Midwestern Culture Comes From Somewhere Else?

Changing Gears just wrapped up our Midwest Migration series. The project documented the stories of people who left the Midwest in search of economic opportunity.

Now, we’re exploring stories of people who came into the region from other places. We’re looking for stories of how these traditions change and shape the identity of families, communities and cities. You can send in your recipes, traditions, family trees, usic and stories and become a part of the project.

Brigitte Kirchgatterer from Forest View, Illinois shared some of her traditions, and the photo at left. Her mother immigrated from Fulda, Germany and her Father from Volklamarkt, Austria. They met in Chicago. Kirchgatterer says that one of her favorite traditions is celebrating with Krampus around Christmastime. But, she says the tradition hasn’t always translated to America.

“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to explain to a non-Austrian in my entire life.” said Kichgatterer. “In fact, my kindergarten teacher in 1981 was so concerned about the “tall tales” I was telling after Christmas break she called my Mom about it saying,’Your daughter said the Devil comes to your house for Christmas?’ Only to learn it was all true!”
Share your traditions with the Your Family Story project here.