Bridget Hall – Public Humanities MA ’23
Food connects us – to our families, our communities, and our histories. The tastes and smells of food tie us to places in our past and evoke memories that live with us. Recipes are archives, retaining visible glimpses of the past and its presence. In the embodied practice of making, sharing, and eating food, we build community and continue culture. Through food, we build on the frameworks constructed by our ancestors to create identity and give meaning to legacy.
This exhibit explores the legacies of food, family, and culture in my life through my family’s recipe for Krustukes, a traditional Lithuanian Christmas cookie. This recipe has persisted through 5 generations, and closely connects me to my grandmother and our shared Lithuanian heritage. It’s a recipe, a story, and a legacy that I’m proud to share with you here.
A Family Legacy
My grandmother Judith was a second-generation American. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents were Lithuanian immigrants who settled in New Britain, Connecticut. They raised their children, my great-grandparents, in a vibrant Lithuanian and Eastern European immigrant community, and ensured their traditions were passed down. My grandmother was a PROUD Lithuanian, and made sure my siblings, cousins, and I always knew that we too were Lithuanian. Particularly, she made sure that we all learned the important Lithuanian family recipes, most of which we cooked around Christmastime. It’s because of her that I feel closest to my Lithuanian heritage through food.
One of my most treasured possessions is a tiny cookbook made by my mother and aunt. They filled this book, titled Vagyti (Let’s Eat), with family recipes from my great grandmother, and inscribed the names of our family around the cover. In many cases, Vagyti contains the only copy of treasured recipes that would have otherwise been lost to time. My mother is a prolific family cookbook author, with at least 4 anthologies to her name. In most copies, recipes are accompanied by photos of my family cooking for and with each other, growing across the years. These cookbooks, especially Vagyti, safeguard our family food – and our histories – into future generations.
What’s in a Name?
In my family, twisty fried cookies covered in powdered sugar are krustukes, and krustukes are Lithuanian. But these same cookies are Polish kruschiki, Ukrainian verhuny, and American angel wings. Over 30 nationalities claim these cookies as their own, each with their own name. Even Lithuania has a different name for them than the one I learned as a child – Žagarėliai. In researching for this exhibit, I’ve learned that my family may be the only ones who call these cookies krustukes. But what’s in a name, really? To me, the name krustuke is incredibly meaning-full, and inextricably linked to my family and identity. It doesn’t matter if we use the ‘right’ name, or even the Lithuanian name. To us, krustukes are krustukes, and krustukes are Lithuanian.
Each year, my mother’s family celebrates Christmas on December 24th. This celebration, called Kūčios, centers around a twelve course feast of traditional (and not-so-traditional) Lithunainan foods. In preparation for Kūčios, we seek out salted herring and Lithuanian Rye bread at tiny markets, brush off our Lithuanian sayings, and remember traditional recipes. My grandmother was a fierce protector of her Lithuanian roots, and made sure her children and grandchildren never missed Kūčios. She’s the one who taught us the right ways to fill ausukes ravioli, cut and cook klatski noodles, and twist krustuke. My grandmother never said Merry Christmas – only Linksmų Kalėdų. When I’m cooking for Kūčios, I keenly sense my connection to my grandmother and everyone who came before and ate these same foods at Christmas time.
Scents of the Past
Does your past have a smell? Does it have a taste? For me, the past smells like mushrooms and herring and pine and chocolate. It tastes like hot powdered sugar on a freshly fried krustuke. It feels like my grandmother’s hands on mine as we roll out dough. It sounds like my siblings practicing piano in another room while my father listens to NPR and preps string beans. My past is entwined with food – making food, eating food, and sharing food with family. One touch, one taste, one smell, and my memories surround me, clearer than ever.
Between the Lines
You can never really count on the accuracy of my family recipes. They’ll skip steps, leave out ingredients, or record measurements in abstract detail. A common refrain in my family when looking at recipes is “Well – that’s not exactly right”. Over time, you learn to rely on the notations in the margins that sneak extra detail onto the page. These notations are a snapshot in time – an effort to help future cooks read between the lines of the recipe. They turn each recipe into a tiny archive, collecting handwriting, thoughts, and best efforts of cooks past.
Working the Dough
I can’t tell you how smooth krustuke dough should be when properly kneaded, how thin it needs to be rolled out, or how to shape the cookies. But I can show you. I can take a pinch of dough between my fingers and feel its softness, remembering the countless times I was told ‘No. Not yet. Keep kneading”. I can take the rolling pin, spinning it back and forth until I can see the grain of my parent’s kitchen table through the dough. I can flip the dough into its final shapes, seeing my fingers move in the same way my grandmother’s did for decades. My body remembers in a way my mind can never fully understand. So I can’t tell you how to work the dough. I’ll show you.
Ačiū ir Vagyti,
Bridget Hall is a historian, museum professional, and current student in the Brown University Public Humanities MA program. She is passionate about New England history, community engagement, foodways, and expanding inclusion in museums. Bridget is also a pop culture enthusiast and terrible (but improving) spoon carver.