From Bagels to Bacalhau…Sharing New Cultural Food Traditions

Jewish Tradition-Bagel with Lox

We got sandwiches from New York Bagel & Bialy in Skokie the other day and I said to my husband, “this must be the best lox and cream cheese sandwich you’ve had,” referring to the 3” inch high concoction he was holding. “The best one was with May,” he responded—the May in question being the sister-in-law of my mom’s roommate from college, whom we hadn’t seen in 25 years.

“Tell me more” was the only possible response here. At the time Geno was new to my family, new to Jewish culture, and still relatively new to the US. “She saw me put a measly piece of lox on a thinly shmeared bagel and immediately took cultural ownership,” he said. “Give me your bagel” she commanded as she took his plate. She proceeded to pile his bagel high with more cream cheese, layers upon layers of lox and topped it off with capers, onions and tomatoes. All these years later he remembers it as his true indoctrination into Jewish culture… it was his first and best, most authentic bagel and lox he ever had.

First Pumpkin Pie for Newcomers and Visitors to the US

Pumpkin Pie

Speaking of Thanksgiving and the first time you try another culture’s prized food…My nephew Andre finagled a good five “first” tries of pumpkin pie. He was 14 and had been living in the US just over 8 months when his first Thanksgiving came around. He had heard so much about pumpkin pie from classmates that he wondered “could we get one to try the week before Thanksgiving?” “Of course, punkin’,” I said finding joy and pride in sharing such a tasty tradition.

Then there were the lunch ladies at school. “What is that? Is it good?” he asked, innocently, getting not one but two slices to try. Visiting St. Louis for the actual holiday weekend, I caught him three times at three different gatherings alone in the kitchen with the host, eating a piece of pumpkin pie perfectly coiffed with whipped cream, having just explained that he had never tried it before.

Bacalhau for Christmas Eve in Brazil

Of course not all traditions always translate if one (cough, me, cough) doesn’t like the main ingredient! There is absolutely nothing more wonderful than celebrating Christmas Eve in Brazil, traveling from house to house, sharing love and laughs with family and friends, bringing gifts of Panettone and eating along the way. But the pride and joy for any Brazilian hostess on Christmas is their Bacalhau—or salted cod fish dish. Two things that happened at every house unfailingly were “you have to try my bacalhau,” and if I demurred, “oh, but you haven’t tried MY bacalhau.”  

Chocolate Chip Cookies the Best US Delicacy

And, speaking of pride in sharing US Culture, we are on our third hosting of State Department sponsored visitors via World Chicago. Past visitors were from Colombia and Brazil and this time, we’ll have visitors from Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Territories. Hooray for sharing their first (maybe?) pumpkin pie. And because I firmly believe the US has the best cookies in the world I’ll insist on Chocolate Chip Cookies! That has long been a staple at any international home hospitality visit experienced at our house.

There us a joy in being the first to share a cultural and personal tradition. If in doubt, ask anyone on the street in New York City where you can get the best slice of pizza. It’s like people feel they are doing a community service, helping you experience something that is an amazing secret that will make your life all the better for experiencing. 

What traditions do you savor?

Which cultural food traditions have you shared? What new cultural traditions do you remember when, where and how you first experienced them?