On experiencing traditions as an outsider, and the universal smell of vanilla
It’s December 2014 and we’re making cookies.
There’s a familiar smell of cinnamon and cloves but I am a long way from home. Our kitchen isn’t a kitchen but a classroom in a language school in Vienna. We’re not a family but a class of homesick German learners following recipes in a language we barely spoke in the summer to make cookies we’ve never heard of. It’ll be next year before I can spell Weihnachtskekse (Christmas biscuits) first time.
We’ve also been tricked. They said this was part of the cultural enrichment programme but really the school Christmas party needs 2000 cookies and this demands extra hands at the rolling pin. There are six different kinds, none of them much bigger than a £2 coin, and each needs to be cut, iced, filled with apricot jam, or dredged in vanilla sugar. We’ve been here for six hours. Everything feels heavy. Everything is sticky.
It’s the happiest I’ve been in the three months since I moved here.
For once, I’m not spectating. This is not a gallery tour, or a bench on the fringes of Wiesen (Oktoberfest). I’m not an imposter in a crowd of people who know where they slot into a city that’s very old and very beautiful and twenty times the size of anywhere I’ve ever lived before. I’m being shown, invited in and, even if my vocabulary is lacking, my hands know what to do with butter, sugar, flour and eggs.
Sharing culinary traditions can be fraught. Since the Weihnachtskekse party, gatekeepers have scolded me for not soaking dried fruit in rum for my breakfast Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes) or for swapping out poppyseed paste (which never tastes as good as it smells) for walnuts. You can follow the recipe, they say, but don’t even joke that it makes you an Austrian.
There is a grounding which comes from doing things as they were done a hundred years ago. If we keep our traditions like they’re set in stone, it’s a straight line, a Roman road, an easy story to tell. Newcomers and amateurs are used to celebrating in different ways and they make things messy. But on the first day I made Weihnachtskekse, I learned more, found more confidence, and was more myself in German than I had been in two hundred hours of formal classes.
Food is the best icebreaker. Language students love to answer to (or completely confirm) stereotypes. Take it from the Scottish student who regularly has to explain haggis. Mention proper food, and everyone starts to salivate, then talk, then laugh. In those lessons, you clearly see the person someone is on the other side of the language barrier. Invariably, students will then explain exactly how to make the food that their families made. As you listen, it quickly becomes clear how physical our traditions are. There’s always a method to be taught.
A wedding is a wedding, but the tradition is learning to ceilidh dance until you can’t breathe. A Christmas tree is a tree. The tradition is hanging the ornament you sewed with your school class. It’s something that we touch, something that our muscles learn, something where the smell and the taste makes a permanent connection in our brains. If we see traditions as something more abstract, we miss the bigness in how small they really are.
My teacher, who dragged a bag-for-life full of kilos foil-wrapped dough across Vienna on a tram, had been taught the recipes by her family. Then she invited us in. The tradition went on, even if it shifted slightly. And the cookies that we made, messy and childlike as they were, still went in a tin that she’d got from her Oma.
There won’t be a Weihnachtskekse party in my language school in 2020.
But maybe instead someone will call home and ask how to make something that reminds them of where they would have been. They’ll end up following a recipe that’s been made so many times that you can’t see all the steps for the stains on the page. They won’t be where they want to be, but it can still be a little bit Christmas as long as the pudding tastes right.
Then maybe in the midst of all this unfamiliar we’ll smell brown sugar and cinnamon and feel suddenly, calmly rooted. And maybe later, once we’ve learned, we’ll pass it on to someone new, bring them in, and make them feel like they might be at home after all.
This article was originally published in Potluck Zine