This post was written by Julie Allen, HC Faculty Fellow, Department of Comparative Arts and Letters
I spent a weekend in Chicago recently at a conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Danish American Heritage Society. The society was founded in a living room in Oregon in 1977 as a response to the cultural heritage craze ignited by Alex Haley’s Roots, somewhat akin to the prophet Elijah’s injunction to turn our hearts to our forefathers.
The conference, themed “Danish American Fusion,” featured all manner of fascinating presentations that showcased the ways in which Danish culture and Danish immigrants have affected American life and stories, from Jens Munk’s quest to find the Northwest Passage in the 17th century to contemporary Danish American architects designing sensible airport bathrooms in Minneapolis. The conference was attended by roughly equal numbers of elderly couples eager to know more about the culture they claim as their heritage and young scholars delighted to share their hard-won knowledge and insights, which was as much a demonstration of the process of cultural fusion as the presentations themselves.
On the final day of the conference, we toured the O&H Danish Bakery in Racine, Wisconsin, which has gained national prominence in recent years as the sole supplier of various kinds of mouthwatering Danish kringle (the oval-shaped pastry filled with anything from marzipan to pumpkin spice) for Trader’s Joe’s. The bakery dates back to 1949, when the son of a Danish immigrant to Racine decided to open up a bakery on the north (meaning, non-Danish) side of Racine. While breathing in the delectable scents of the fusion of butter, flour, and sugar that makes kringle as delicious as it must surely be fattening, we were treated to a fascinating history of the bakery’s innovations over the years. We heard the story of how O&H changed the pretzel shape of traditional kringle into an oval, allowing for more filling and less overlap of dough; how the bakery grew from a tiny 600 square-foot facility into its current home in a converted automobile showroom; how the company has developed its range of 18 flavors (of which almond macaroon is the current owner, Eric Olesen’s, favorite); and how Trader Joe’s decided that they needed 240,000 pumpkin spice O&H kringle each year. The bakery has been in the same family for four generations, and they make their kringle according to the same recipe now as in 1949, but they also continue to innovate in order to be competitive, illustrating the fusion of cherishing tradition and strategically adapting that underpins the entire history of this country.
While the kringle I brought home from that trip was indeed delicious (I tend to agree with Eric Olesen about the almond macaroon being amazing, though I haven’t yet tried the chocolate pecan, apple, or Wisconsin cranberry kringle I stashed in my freezer), what really thrilled me about both the bakery tour and the conference itself was how everyone I met—from conference attendees and presenters to the bakery owners and the president of the Danish Brotherhood in Kenosha who hosted us for lunch—was anxiously engaged in what I consider to be the very good cause of celebrating the things that bring us together rather than those that drive us apart.
The news is so full of tragedy and idiocy that it can be easy to think that the end is nigh (or at least to wish it were), but one taste of Danish kringle can make everything seem brighter—not just because it is delicious, but also because it exemplifies the way in which the humanities (which most certainly include food, in my book, but especially the stories behind food) can bring us together in wonder and delight. The humanities showcase the things that unite us as people—shared experiences of migration, love, loss, desire, pride, sorrow, fear, despair, and hope—and fuse them into forms we can digest—stories, images, songs, and pastry. In short, they feed our souls and have the power to save the world.