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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Vikings, Rice Pudding, and Being Different, Goshdarnit!

Risalamande: How Different is Good

              Throughout history, the descendents of the Vikings on the small peninsula and islands of Denmark have distinguished themselves by embracing the different. Champions of all variation, good and bad, the Danish not only travel abroad in astounding numbers and integrate LGBT identity into their cultural framework: they also marked themselves during WWII as the only country to successfully evacuate all of their Jewish citizens. Scholars--and my Danish mother--credit this success to the high level of acceptance and integration the Danish had achieved with their Jewish residents, to the point that when Hitler required Jews to wear yellow stars, the Danish king ordered all citizens to wear these symbols of Jewish separation. These Danish cultural attitudes in everyday life come out most clearly in the Christmas rice ritual of eating risalamande.
              This fluffy rice pudding dish is traditionally created once every Christmas out of whipped cream and rice porridge, often accompanied with a cherry or cranberry sauce. In my family ground nuts sometimes find their way into the risalamande to tempt or tease the eater, as a constant reminder of the whole almond hiding in some lucky person's bowl. This whole almond universally becomes the central part of the ritual, and when eating risalamande, each person rolls the rice over on the tongue slowly to feel for any irregularities, for the person who finds the whole almond receives an extra gift. The winner must not immediately reveal the almond, however--she must keep it hidden in her mouth until the end of the ritual, at which point she may reveal that she has won. I have observed risalamande consumption where the winner was allowed to hide the almond in her napkin, rather than in her mouth, but the concept remains the same. In this Danish tradition, the "different" person remains modest and non-obnoxious about his difference, but in the end, uniqueness receives a reward.
              According to an interview with John Hyltoft, an eighty-year-old Danish immigrant to the United States, risalamande actually evolved from the much simpler rice porridge, risengrød, comprised purely of rice and milk sometimes topped with cinnamon and butter. Mr. Hyltoft, who changed his name from the Danish Johannes upon immigrating, actually remembers having eaten risengrød with the almond, instead of risalamande, at some point in his life. Risalamande, as suggested by the spelling of the name (Ris a la mande), actually carries French desert influence, but risengrød dates back to the old Danish farm life "back in history," says Mr. Hyltoft. The incorporation of foreign influence into a long-treasured tradition again demonstrates the openness and fluidity of Danish culture. Risengrød itself became an important part of Danish agricultural life because farmers used it to pacify the nisse, the mischevious house sprite or fairy. A well-placed bowl of risengrød up in the rafters for the nisse would bring good to the house; otherwise, says Mr. Hyltoft, the nisse would "figure out all kind of crazy thing" like "tying one horse to another, something like that. Not like burning down the house or something, just, you know it would make things irritating." We see, then, that although a long-held tradition adapted as tastes changed to foreign comforts, food within this ritual connects Danes to a common national, agricultural and mythological history. Importantly, the nisse--the foreign, different, other--becomes incorporated into the household through risengrød, again underlining the Danish emphasis on accepting uniqueness into a part of the home fabric.
              The social mores around the manner in which risalamande is consumed today continue this tradition of incorporating the "other" into "us" while hinting at additional cultural values. Mr. Hyltoft remembers that when he ate risalamande with his family as a young boy, somehow one of the young children always wound up with the almond. We can see here the connection between food and age through the process of celebrating and bringing children into the cultural context with the rest of the family, teaching the children a cultural value of being "different." Mr. Hyltoft, without thinking much of it, also said that the younger sisters in the family often received the almond. He was, however, the youngest child in the family. The gender-based selection of the sisters over Mr. Hyltoft did not register with him and he saw the selection as age based, showing just how inherently and naturally cultural values affected the ritual. More telling, when the meal did not involve children, the guest--from outside the family--would always receive the almond. I remember even today when my future husband ate risalamande at my Danish mother's table for the first time, as the newest guest, he wound up with the almond. My mother made the situation appear accidental, and everyone told Brian that the almond had wound up in his bowl through good luck, but of course we all knew my mother had selected his bowl. The almond became a way of making his "outsider" status a positive thing that ultimately bonds him together with us through celebration of his unique fortune. As he enters my family, in some way I suspect this almond also serves as initiation. Next Christmas, he probably will not get the almond, for, as Mr. Hyltoft explains, "without guests it was always a fair fight."
              The consumption, history, and social preparation of risalamande demonstrate the value of the "other" within Danish culture, as well as hinting at gender, initiation, nationalism, and age identities within Danish thought. As the Christmas ritual of risalamande continues to move from generation to generation, however, the dish not only demonstrates cultural mores but actually helps to create and maintain them. Much of the way adults think about separation and uniqueness develops through celebration or rejection of these values during their childhood. Children brought up celebrating the "lucky special one" every Christmas inevitably feel a pull towards the different and the other. Risalamande, then, not only cements a constant of Danish tradition, but additionally catalyzes Danish foreign openness and cultural change.

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