Food as Folklore: Ethnic Breads and Pastries
Foodways are culinary expressions of community life and value; in other words, they are bits of folklore. Like crafts, music, and dance, culinary traditions give a sense of identity and purpose to those who practice them.
This is especially true, I think, of ethnic breads and pastries prepared around Christmas, Hanukkah, and other mid-winter holidays. A delicious example is mavish, a rose-shaped, nut-studded pastry I learned about from an Armenian-American friend, who told me that Armenian families keep mavish on hand during the holidays, to share with neighbors who stop by.
My friend Araxy also recalled a trip she took to meet family members in Armenia, and how her cousins served her native foods like mavish that she recognized from her own youth. "They took care of me as if they were my parents," she told me. "I recognized threads, family themes that were so calming. Now I understand where I come from and that we are responsible for each other. It gives me a sense of peace, makes me feel strong."
Yes, ethnic foodways are imbued with powerful meaning, especially at this time of year. As Araxy once said to me, “Through food, through tradition, we are all connected."
Lucia Buns (Swedish Saffron Rolls) - To celebrate the beginning of the Christmas festivities, many Swedish-American families serve hot coffee and these golden, whimsically shaped rolls.
Potica (Slovenian Nut Roll) – A holiday specialty enjoyed by Slovenian immigrants to the United States, and their descendents.
Belgian Pie - With a yeast-raised crust and fruit filling, Belgian pie is as much a coffee cake as it is a dessert.
Fry Bread - Fry bread recipes, a favorite in many Native American kitchens, is a simple but beloved pastry served with butter, jam, powdered sugar, or cinnamon and sugar.
Chesnitsa – The coin hidden inside this traditional Serbian Christmas bread brings luck to the diner who finds it in her portion. Traditionally, a disk-shaped, yeast-raised bread, this version has evolved over generations
"into an elegant, lightly sweet pastry filled with cream cheese, raisins, and pecans.” Contributed by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach.
Rugelach - Cinnamon-spiked, raisin-stuffed rugelach are served in many Jewish homes at Hanukkah.
Sweet Potato Pie – One of the heritage foods to serve during Kwanzaa, the African-American celebration of culture which runs from December 26 to New Year's Day.
Mavish– An Armenian-style rose-shaped pastry that is deep-fried and then drizzled with sugar syrup and walnuts.