Having writing prompts is very useful when putting out a weekly blog, especially since topics I think are of interest may be so for me, but not necessarily for you. May is one of those months that seems to be popular with awareness groups (e.g., Stroke Awareness, Mental Health, Guide Dogs, Bikes, Haitian Heritage, to name a few). It also contains two full moons, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day.
Given the plethora of choices here, I have decided to write on several of these that dovetail nicely with the Center for Aging & Values’ focus on creating purpose and meaning across the lifespan. This week I’ll look at family celebrations and how they have influenced legacies of values handed down through the generations. Next week I’ll pay homage to Mothers. The following week, I’ll dip into some more interesting tidbits about the aging brain and stroke, and finally, to wrap the month up, I’ll take a stab at how Memorial Day has changed over time.
Cultural Celebrations as Legacy Builders
Ritual and custom are like skeins of yarn cast on needles knitting families together across generations. While there will always be modifications in rituals to fit the needs and times of those who are participating, what is inherent in the repetition is the reinforcement resulting in what we call tradition.
My family proudly celebrated St. Patrick’s Day for many years, acknowledging our Irish heritage and creating an excuse to eat corned beef and cabbage and drink Irish whiskey. As is true for many other such cultural observations, these events have food as a key part of them. Actually, in my family, food was often more important than the ritual, event or saint that was marked on the calendar.
These events were opportunities for members of the older generation to share stories with the younger ones. Depending on your family’s experiences, these stories may be of what it was like to come to America, to move to the community you now live in, to find work and make a living. Or maybe it was a recitation of who married who, which family member drove the Rambler, and whatever-happened-to-whathisname? All of which was repeated while sitting around the table, or bar-b-que, or fire pit.
I just returned to where my family has its roots in Wisconsin. Meeting up with family members, we shared stories and memories of the many family gatherings at various restaurants and homes. Some of those stories were being heard for the first time by the younger generations.
I was struck by how powerful place was in these memories. The restaurant we met at has been a roadhouse since the early 1900s. Members of my family have been gathering there to celebrate birthdays, funerals, and other events since it opened. One of the rituals is naming all the owners of the restaurant, since it has changed hands many times over the years.
Food is one of those things that families tend to share across generations. This may take the form, as it did in my family, of my grandmother teaching me how to make the family recipe for Christmas Stöllen, or my husband sharing his secret ingredient for the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing with one of his daughters.
Food and our Cultural Heritage
Before I moved to California, I was quite ignorant of any kind of celebrations of national importance outside of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. I still am relatively ignorant of what my Canadian neighbors see as a holiday and what foods are associated with it, but I have become a big fan of Cinco de Mayo! And mostly because of the food.
Like many cultural observations, Cinco de Mayo has been hijacked by opportunists such as margarita mix manufacturers and taco shell distributors. While that combination was my initial introduction to Cinco de Mayo, I have become better informed and developed a deep appreciation for the food that is associated with the victory of the Mexican army over the French in the town of Puebla back in 1862.
The City and State of Puebla is located in the southeastern portion of Mexico. Even back in the 1800s, it had a reputation as a culinary capital. This is in no small part due to its geography. Home to many of the great pyramids, this town has been serving up food to travelers and worshipers for centuries. Because of it being a ‘destination’ location, the cuisine has taken on many different flavors and influences that make it sophisticated and satisfying to every palette.
You will not, however, find margaritas and tacos on the menu for the observation of Cinco de Mayo in Puebla! Instead you will find complex and divine mole, hearty and fun-to-eat chalupas, and sweet, satisfying, and visually splendid, chilies en nogada. You can certainly download these recipes online, but it is much more fun to find a Cinco de Mayo event near you, and try these and other traditional dishes while surrounded by the ritual and customs of this celebration.
I assume that all families have similar places and traditions that hold special memories. Places that, in and of themselves, are not necessarily noteworthy, but trigger memories that branch off in many directions and over many generations. Cultivating these memories is important work.
If you are part of the older generation, I encourage you to share your stories with your children and grandchildren. They may not be listening with rapt attention, but by repeating, they will absorb what is essential. And one day you may find yourself sitting at a table listening to them re-tell the story while eating a favorite food. Happy Cinco de Mayo!