Your Family Story

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.

We're looking for stories, recipes, songs, and pictures. We'll be collecting these stories here, at Your Family Story. They'll also appear at changinggears.info and michiganradio.org. We'll even put some on the air. You can share your story here.
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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.”

An updated tradition can help to make culture more meaningful for younger generations. Rosalyn Park hated stuffing mandu as a child. Eventually, though, making mandu became a special, Christmastime tradition that Park looks forward to. It’s now a way for Park’s family to come together once a year.

“Over the years, our Christmas making mandu tradition has expanded, and we now invite close friends to participate in the event, open a bottle or two of wine, and make merry. The big bowl would come out, the mandu skins laid forth, and we’d sit down for another several hours of mandu-making,” said Park

Park’s mother added a twist to keep everyone in the mandu-stuffing spirit. “My Buddhist-born, now Catholic mother forced us to wear Santa hats. Never mind that our foreheads itched under the synthetic white fur, we were her “elves” and this was how we now did it.”


Stuffing mandu with the Park family. Credit: Roaslyn Park

Some culinary traditions are difficult to keep, no matter how hard you try. Like a foreign language, complex recipes can become easier with total cultural immersion. We heard from many children of immigrants who never learned these skills as they grew up in the U.S. Most regret it.

Brigitte Kirchgatterer has found her mother’s German recipes challenging to master. “My Mom passed in 2005 and she really was active in trying to retain a lot of the Germanic Cooking,” said Kirchgatterer. “I find I just do not have the time to prepare the same labor intense or process laden dishes even though I miss them. It makes me very sad.”

You can read more about food, traditions, and cultural adaptation from our collection of family stories. Or, you can share your family traditions with us.

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.

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My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, an island perhaps known for its Carnival, great cricket players (and Nobel-winning writers!) as well as one of my personal favorites: fantastic food. My great-great grandparents immigrated to Trinidad from India. Today, families like mine who have Indian ancestry make up a slight majority of Trinidad’s population, about 40 percent, but the nation is a mix of people of African, Chinese and European heritage. That’s why I think Trinidad has the best food in the Caribbean, although I know that opens me up to controversy from other islands! 

I was born and raised in Miami, with at least a similar tropical climate – and my mom and especially my maternal grandmother, on visits here and there, provided the food. As I’ve grown up, my uncle on my mom’s side has taught me much more about how to cook – although I’m not sure I can ever reach his culinary standards!

The standard, of course, is Trinidad’s variation of curry, a green curry that’s hard to describe – it’s not like Thai curry, and in my exploration of South Asian food, I haven’t come across a similar version. But I haven’t perfected my mom’s or Uncle Victor’s curry, which is hard to top, and a great favorite with my nieces and nephews in Michigan and California. I do make my mom’s pelau – a chicken and rice dish, all in one pot, flavored with pigeon peas, coconut milk and the essential scotch bonnet pepper. I base my recipe on a cookbook my mom gave me a few years ago from her high school. I’ve yet to find parboiled rice in Chicago – which is essential to this recipe, because otherwise the rice gets mushy, so I import it from Miami, along with the brown sugar. Trinidad no longer produces the caramel, rich demerara sugar that is a standard for stew chicken – it now all comes from Guyana, but having a good quality brown sugar makes a difference, too.

As any West Indian will tell you, “seasoning” is key to imparting the flavor of this recipe. It’s best to let the chicken marinate in this green seasoning at least overnight. I also find that pelau always tastes better the day after it cooks, and like my mom, I like to serve this with a creamy, tart coleslaw as a foil for the spice of this dish. My parents also like to add ketchup as a condiment.

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs. chicken, cut up into large pieces
  • 2 Tbsp green seasoning
  • 2 tsp grated garlic
  • 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp tomato ketchup
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 Tbsp cane sugar (substitute with brown sugar)
  • 2 cups parboiled rice, washed and drained
  • 3/4 cup chopped onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped green peppers
  • 2 cups cooked pigeon peas (you can find this in Latino markets or in the Latino section of large grocery stores)
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 cups cooking liquid (stock, water or reserved cooking liquid from peas)
  • 1 whole scotch bonnet pepper (habanero will do if you can’t find scotch bonnet)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Add chicken, green seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and ketchup to a bowl along with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to mix and coat the chicken with the seasonings. Set aside and let marinate – overnight is best.
  2. Pour oil into a large pot and place on medium high heat. Let oil heat until hot but not smoking.
  3. Sprinkle sugar into heated oil in an even layer. Let the sugar melt until it starts to froth and bubble. As soon as the edges get bubbly (like a pancake) and get darker – almost to the burning point - add the seasoned chicken and stir to mix and coat with the burnt sugar. Let cook for 7 - 10 minutes.
  4. Add the rice to the pot, stir to mix and cook for 3 minutes.
  5. Add peas and green peppers and cook for 1 minute.
  6. Pour in coconut milk and other cooking liquid. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Toss in the whole scotch bonnet pepper. Cover pot and bring to a boil.
  8. When the pot comes to a boil, remove lid partially and let boil until you can see the surface of the dish - the rice, peas and chicken (about 7 - 8 minutes). Cover pot fully, reduce heat to low or simmer and let cook for 25 - 30 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated.
  9. Serve hot or at room temperature.

As part of our Your Family Story series we’re collecting recipes that have been passed down within families. Send in your mothers, grandfathers, or cousins’ famous recipe for goulash, pozole, dumplings-what have you.

We’re collecting recipes from this very second until midnight February 29th. We’ll publish all the recipes. The winner will be announced here and on our partner websites. They’ll collect a grab bag of public radio goodies so get cookin’!

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 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.

For the shortbread base:
2 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup softened butter
1 egg, beaten
3 Tbsp cream or half & half

Sift the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. In a separate small bowl, mix egg with the cream. Add it to the flour mixture. Mix lightly (it may be a little sticky). Spread the mixture in a buttered glass or ceramic pie dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, until baked, but not brown.

Topping:
1/3 cup almond paste (more, if desired)
1/3 cup raspberry jam
1/3 cup apricot jam
candied fruit, if desired

Allow the base to cool until slightly warm. Spread the almond paste on the base (thin it with a little milk if needed to make it pliable). Decorate the top with the apricot and raspberry jam — you can create quadrants with each flavor, and separate them with almond paste borders, or drop the jam in spoonfuls. Add candied fruit if desired.

Mazurek keeps well in the refrigerator for about a week; you may also freeze it. Warm it briefly in the oven or microwave if desired, but take care not to melt the jam.

As part of our Your Family Story series we’re collecting recipes that have been passed down within families. Send in your mothers, grandfathers, or cousins’ famous recipe for goulash, pozole, dumplings-what have you.

We’re collecting recipes from this very second until midnight February 29th. We’ll publish all the recipes. The winner will be announced here and on our partner websites. They’ll collect a grab bag of public radio goodies so get cookin’!

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller shares her recipe for kale, along with this story  about her family’s Dutch roots.

My mother, father, three brothers and I emigrated from the Netherlands by ship in 1956. We settled in Albion, Mich.

We assimilated into American culture, but our roots were still there in the way we ate, celebrated holidays (very simply and frugally) and in our ongoing connection with the Netherlands.

A part of my heart will always live there.

Kale was a staple in our home long before it became popular in the U.S. It’s a nutritious, hearty, inexpensive green vegetable.

In this recipe, it’s mashed with potatoes, onions and bacon and served with smoked sausage. It helped stretch the meal budget for Dutch families.

We kept that tradition, and it was always a treat when my mother made a great huge pot of it. I still love it today.

Below is a recipe (original here) that’s very close to how Mom made it: 
 

Ingredients:

3 lbs potatoes
1 lb kale
250g lardons (cubed thick bacon)
2 onions
1 bay leaf
1 pinch salt
1 pinch ground pepper
1 lb smoked sausage
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbs butter

Directions:

1. Peel and dice potatoes and onions.
2. Clean, trim and slice kale.
3. Add the potatoes, a bay leaf, a pinch of salt and just enough water to cover all in a 3 quart pan.
4. Cover and boil gently for about 25 minutes.
5. Remove the bay leaf, drain the potatoes, and return to the pot with 1 1/2 cups of the reserved water.
6. Top with the kale and sausage (keep in the original vacuum-sealed package), cover and return to boil until the kale has been steamed until soft and turns a dark green color (5-7 mins).
7. Meanwhile brown the bacon and onions in a pan until just browned but not crisp.
8. Remove pot of vegetables from heat, remove sausage from pot, and add bacon mixture, milk, butter, add salt and pepper to taste and mash.
9. Slice smoked sausage and serve aside or on top of the mashed vegetables.

Want to enter our recipe contest? You can submit your recipe here, or email us at michigan.radio@umich.edu

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
 
  

As part of our Your Family Story series we’re collecting recipes that have been passed down within families. Send in your mothers, grandfathers, or cousins’ famous recipe for goulash, pozole, dumplings-what have you.

We’re collecting recipes from this very second until midnight February 29th. We’ll publish all the recipes. The winner will be announced here and on our partner websites. They’ll collect a grab bag of public radio goodies so get cookin!

My mother was born in Kobe Japan and my father was born in Reading England. My father came to the United States on the SS Liberty when he was six years old and spent the rest of his childhood in Bloomfield, NJ. My mother was born and raised in Kobe, Japan. My mother and father met during several business related conventions. They hit it off, got married, moved to New Jersey and then-had me.

Growing up on Japanese food I must say I do have a taste for it.

I was never fully accepted into one social group due to my background.  So, I tried to identify with all backgrounds. I found that social groups change wherever you go. I embrace all people and all culture.

I have lost some of my ability to speak Japanese because I haven’t been to Japan in a while. I also have not been able to speak to many people in Japanese around me, since there aren’t very many people around me that can.

-Alexander Rekalski, Michigan

All four of my grandparents emigrated from Sicily in the early 20th Century. They brought many food traditions with them. One that has endured is the making of the Christmas sausage. The sausage is traditionally made on Thanksgiving weekend, distributed, and frozen. Christmas Eve is when we get our first taste.

The sausage-making ritual used to be presided over by my paternal grandmother. She and her three sons did the job together. They would buy the meat and have it ground at an Italian butcher, get fresh cheese grated, then put it all together by hand in my grandparents’ basement (where there was a full second kitchen), usually the day after Thanksgiving.

Some years 200 pounds of meat was purchased for the sausage.

My favorite memory is the annual critique that accompanies the Christmas Eve meal. One person might find the sausage too spicy; another, too tough. Too much wine, or not enough, ditto for cheese. One year it had been ground differently, sparking debate. Eat, critique, repeat.

And so it’s gone on for as long as I can remember. And so it will, hopefully, for many more years to come.

Aluzzo’s Italian sausage

   17 pounds Pork

   3 pounds Beef

   3 cups Wine

   4 tablespoons Pepper

   4 tablespoons Salt

   2 1/3 cups Cheese

   4 tablespoons fennel seeds or 2 tablespoons ground

   1 ½ cups Italian parsley

-Annette Kingsbury, Michigan

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

My mother discovered her family origins through a letter written in the early 1900’s that was found in a desk drawer in an attic in Epernay, France. The letter was written by my grandfather and addressed to his brother. When my mother discovered the letter, 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 as well as a blanket of comfort.


Jillian’s mother and her father, Wayne, with a stack of letters. Credit: Maureen Houston/BND.com

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.

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.

-Jillian Jones Sisko, Michigan

My parents emigrated from South Korea 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.

Eventually, though, as I went away to college and moved out of the house, my mother turned the mandu-making into a special event. Since we all came home for Christmas, she decided we would make it for the holidays.

To top it off, my Buddhist-born mother—now a converted Catholic—went out and bought Santa hats, which she forced us each to wear as we made mandu.

Over the years, our Christmas making mandu tradition has expanded, and we now invite close friends to participate in the event, open a bottle or two of wine, and make merry.

It’s actually become a fun tradition that I look forward to, and this year, I found myself rearranging my holiday schedule so I could get home and be there to make mandu.

-Rosalyn Park, Minnesota

I came to the US 18 years ago at the age of 24. I got married that same year and moved with my husband to Bronx, NY. He came for higher education. I came along for the adventure. We were planning on returning as soon as he was done. The world in my small town moved faster than I expected and we no longer felt like we could fit back easily, so we stayed here and now have two wonderful kids.

I came from the South of India, I grow up exposed to harmony of diverse languages and religions. Secular was a good word. Diversity was the norm.

I miss what I loved the most about India, the intermingling of cultures. If my family did not celebrate a festival we would visit friends who did, it did not matter which religion you belonged to—you could easily get into the spirit of Id, Christmas or Diwali.

Also, in India you grow in status as you age. Age is respected in the US, but here we do not want to grow old. One has to learn to how to behave with older people, they do not want to be treated as old - so I had to make a conscious change and teach my children differently.

I miss the daily morning rituals where every family in India cooks while scents and sounds are wafting in and out of different houses over the sounds of the Azaan, the Muslim call to prayer. There was a pattern that got woven to awaken all your 5 senses. You belonged to the day now! 

-Laj, Wisconsin

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 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.”

-Jeff Karoub, Michigan

You can listen to Jeff’s song here.

"Made by Motown"

One grandfather came down state
The other across the sea
Both took a shot at achieving their dreams
By assembling Model Ts
Five thousand parts and five bucks a day
It was tough yet enough to take home
Still the best thing they built was not by their hands
But the foundation for those yet to come
For better, or worse
And we’ve seen much of both after a century
I’m still proud to say that they helped to make Motown 
And Motown helped to make me
My father found music his way out of plants
With so many places to play
There was Olympia and Orchestra Hall
And Motown’s famed Studio A
He had midnight sessions and chart-topping sides
The horn that you hear on grapevine
From Marvin to Stevie, the Supremes and the Tops
It was one groovin’ assembly line
I’m blessed to be writing and playing my songs
The product of hard-working kin
But sometimes I feel like the unlikely child 
Of Henry Ford and Aretha Franklin 

I was born in pre-state Israel when it was called Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. My husband, Dr. Sheldon Kapen, is American-born. We were married in Israel when my husband did his medical internship

Although my husband was born in the United States, he has an abiding love for the Hebrew language, so our sons are bilingual and feel comfortable in both language and both cultures.

Besides the Hebrew that we continue to speak at home, I remember the Yiddish which my parents—who came to Palestine from Lithuania in the early 1920’s—spoke between them, and I compose a combined English-Yiddish limerick for the Jewish News for Jewish holidays which is very popular with the readers.

-Rachel Kapen, Michigan 

Tu B’Shevat, or Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot, is the New Year of the Trees.

The Roman Catholic Church is very important to us as the center of our identity and culture. It is at Church that we celebrate the Slovenian Mardi Gras, Maskarada. Maskarada is the blessing of foods for Easter.

Church is where we come together from various parts of the city. It is the place where some of our most beautiful music is sung. We have clubs and Halls for the Slovenian people but in the end we all come back to our Faith and the church. We have some of the most beautiful Christmas music. Christmas is a time for choral concerts to celebrate Christmas.

Another important tradition is the Easter tradition of having our food baskets blessed. The food is eaten on Easter Sunday morning. The foods all have symbolic value.  They include eggs, horseradish, ham, sausage, cheese, bread and wine.

-John Retar, Ohio