Food, Glorious Food

For many people, especially at holiday times, food has pride of place in their lives and households.

Last week, I spent most of one day making sandbakelse in preparation for the holiday season. Sandbakelse are a Swedish Christmas cookie. The recipe I use every year is my grandmother’s, brought from Sweden when she immigrated to the United States in 1894. I also have and use her sandbakelse tins in which the cookie dough is pressed and then baked into the classic sunburst-shaped cookie. During the hours I spent making and baking the sandbakelse, I thought pretty much nonstop about my grandparents, my Swedish heritage, and my mother — remembering what little I know of the family left behind in Sweden, the ocean crossing, the overland trip into the heartland to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and the early years spent building a new life in the United States. I have to marvel at the choices they had to make about what items to bring with them on that journey — and to think that the sandbakelse tins were so highly valued that they were carefully tucked into one corner of the steamer trunk.

(My mother always stored the sandbakelse she made in a round lavender-colored tin box lined with wax paper. Whatever happened to that lavender box?)

In recent years, in our profession of occupational therapy, a group of scholars from New Zealand, Thailand and the United States conducted a holiday meal study. The aim of the study was to gain cross-cultural understanding of the meanings imbedded in holiday food preparation by older women in these three countries. Strong themes of meaning included high valuing of home cooking, using made-from-scratch recipes and preparing way more than enough food for one meal (there should be plenty of leftovers). Long-used family recipes held a special place in the planning, and ordinary cooking items sometimes held special significance. The holiday food preparation was also a way to make and remake the family identity, connecting people from multiple generations to their cultures and histories. I can see sandbakelse and sandbakelse tins everywhere in these findings.

Marcel Proust, French novelist and essayist (1871-1922), draws a distinction between voluntary memory (memories consciously retrieved by intelligence) and involuntary memory (memories that come unbidden, without a conscious effort). In his great work, “Remembrance of Things Past,” Proust says that the essence of our own past is beyond the reach of intellect, is hidden somewhere “outside the realm.” Proust’s famous example of involuntary memory is what is known as the “episode of the madeleine.” Madeleines are very small sponge cakes shaped like shells that are traditional in an area of northeastern France. In his childhood, Proust’s aunt used to serve him tea and madeleines in the mornings. Many years later, when Proust was back again in his home town for a visit, his mother offered him tea and madeleines. He describes taking a bite of a madeleine and a spoonful of tea, and “suddenly the memory returns.” With the taste of the tea and madeleine, a flood of memories come back to him of the places and people and happenings of his youth in Combray, France. Proust says of this experience, “From a long- distant past…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment…[they] bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

The “smell and taste” of the sandbakelse remain forever poised, ready each year to offer me the poignant recollections of my family — our identity, our history, our connections through the generations, and our traditions — in the “almost impalpable drop of their essence.”

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Hocking, C., Wright-St. Clair, V., & Bunrayong, W. (2002). The meaning of cooking and recipe work for older Thai and New Zealand women. Journal of Occupational Science, 9,117-127.

Hocking, C., Pierce, D., Shordike, A., Wright-St. Claire, V., Bunrayong, W., Vittayakorn, S., & Rattakorn, P. (2008). The promise of internationally collaborative research for studying occupation: The example of the older women’s food preparation study. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 8(4), 180-190.

Shordike, A., Hocking, C., Pierce, D., Wright-St. Clair, V., Vittayakorn, S., Rattakorn, P., & Bunrayong, W. (2010). Respecting regional culture in an international multi-site study: A derived etic method. Qualitative Research, 10(3), 333-355.

Wright-St. Clair, V., Hocking, C., Bunrayong, W., Vittayakorn, S., & Rattakorn, P. (2005). Older New Zealand women doing the work of Christmas: A recipe for identity formation. Sociological Review, 53, 332-350.

2 thoughts on “Food, Glorious Food

  1. Betty, your story speaks to the way particular foods and recipes nuture more than the body; they nurture relationships and human connectedness over generations and time. When we were beginning to analyse the New Zealand data in the food occupations study, I asked my mother if I could come and chat to her and her friends after a bridge-playing afternoon about the meaning that ‘handed-down’ recipes had for them. Without any prompting from me they came along with their own ‘recipe books’. These were treasured, well-worn, hard-cover exercise books, compiled from tried-and-true recipes written in their own or their mothers’, grandmothers’ or great-aunts’ hand writing. They agreed that cooking up these treasured recipes was like having many women from their families with them when they were in the kitchen.

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  2. Valerie: Thank you for sharing your lovely experience with your mother and her friends. My sandbakelse recipe, too, was written in my mother’s hand. I have another Swedish recipe written out by my mother — Kalv Sylta (jellied veal) — which would likely not elicit the same warm feelings from blog readers as the “smell and taste” of the sandbakelse! But I always liked it, and now make it every Christmas, using my grandmother’s star-shaped mold. Happy New Year! Betty

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