Sweet traditions

Why we savor our family dessert customs

Above: A 3-year-old Rachel Mayfield with her birthday muffin.

Above: A 3-year-old Rachel Mayfield with her birthday muffin.

For my third birthday, we had muffins for dessert. Legend has it, our family holds a tradition of serving muffins on every child’s third birthday—at least that’s how a mystifying caption beneath a photo of myself in an early scrapbook explains it.

Except, this isn’t exactly true. What really happened was this: My older brother asked for muffins when he turned three, and since I copied everything he did, I asked for the same on that birthday.

I didn’t actually want muffins, however. It was less a time-honored tradition and more a case of confusing muffins for cupcakes. (They are the same shape!) I hadn’t yet put it together that the frosting-topped treat and the glorified breakfast bread were two different things. One was definitely dessert and the other, it seemed, up for debate. Today I still have a hard time trusting either muffins or cupcakes.

Left: The original recipe for a childhood favorite.

My experience with such dessert memories is hardly unique. A meal’s final course can be rich with a tradition and history that varies from culture to culture. Dessert is a treat that pops up all across the globe in a variety of unique and meaningful ways. Fly on over to Italy, where Christmas is almost synonymous with panettone, a popular bread studded with raisins and candied fruits. Or there’s China, where folks eat tangyuan—sugary rice dumplings with fillings such as bean paste or sesame seeds. Often served during festivals and family ceremonies, their round shape symbolize unity and togetherness. Pretty cool. This is, of course, is just a small sample. There’s a whole world of desserts and cultural traditions out there to recognize, explore and celebrate, some of which can be found within our own lives.

For many, desserts are attached to family traditions and cultural customs—birthdays, holidays, weddings, funerals. They’re intrinsically tied to the people we share them with, the memories we create and the feelings they evoke. Maybe you have fond memories of visiting Grandma and eating her nutty holiday fudge, though you always picked out the nuts because, “ew, nuts!” Or maybe there was a time when you tried making homemade ice cream for your family, only to end up with a miserable, soupy mess. Now, whenever you get together and eat sundaes, you all can’t help but laugh at your failed, but well-meaning attempt.

Most of us can look to some memory or tradition unique to our own family experience, and that’s what makes dessert all the more special.

Aside from muffins, my family has another tradition: A birthday dessert my mom sometimes prepared. I still think of it often. Clipped from a women’s magazine circa 1979, her recipe for “Layered Pudding Delight” calls for honey graham crackers, vanilla pudding, Cool Whip and cherry pie filling. While it was clearly created to sell Jell-O brand pudding, that didn’t detract from the fact that it was utterly delicious. My mom used chocolate graham crackers because, according to her, “chocolate is better.” It was a perfect alteration that transformed the recipe into a family tradition.

I loved making it with her. Breaking up graham crackers, blending pudding with Cool Whip, my mom watching carefully to make sure I spread the pudding mixture equally to cover every corner of the pan. After, we poured the canned cherries on top as the final touch. It was always fun sharing this treat with friends who’d never tasted it before. Suspicious at first, they were usually won over by the first two bites. It didn’t really matter what it looked like, it was the flavor profile (an overwhelming amount of processed sugary sweetness) that mattered. And, it’s one of those dishes that, when I eat it now, reminds me of those times spent in the kitchen bonding with my mom. Next time you bring out your favorite dessert, take some time to reflect on what it means to you. Or, if nothing strikes a chord, consider forming new traditions of your own. All it takes is a little imagination and a room full of hungry people, eager to share your new dessert experiment and form lifelong memories.