A Canadian Gal in the States — Part 1: Style and Substance

A couple months ago, I promised some posts on what it’s like to be a Canadian living in the United States. There are many stories to share, but this one seems appropriate to the season. And it was one of my first introductions into the differences between our two cultures.

Twelve years ago, we moved from Montreal to Minnesota. It’s not hard to imagine there would be some adjustments. Our neighbors were incredibly nice, and since we moved into our house in the fall, they invited me to a brunch and Christmas cookie exchange in early December.

I was feeling really confident about this event. I’m a good baker, and I was sure that my delicious cookies could win the hearts and minds of my fellow Minnesotans. I decided on Raspberry Cream Cheese cookies, a Christmas favorite in my house growing up. They are rich and tender, with tangy raspberry jam nestled inside a soft snow-white cream cheese cookie and finished with a light dusting of powdered sugar. I was 8 months pregnant, with a 20-month old child underfoot, but I set to baking. And I proudly carried my cookies (divided into half-dozen individual portions as instructed) down the freezing-cold Minnesota winter street to the house down the way.Easy-Polar-Bears-Cookies

As we entered the house, smelling of egg-and-ham bake and coffee, everyone put their offerings on the dining room table. And I immediately saw where I had gone seriously wrong.

Everyone else came with their cookies laid out carefully on Christmas-themed paper plates, covered with festively-themed ziploc bags. My cookies were in plain ziploc bags — with no paper plate. They just flopped around, smearing their powdered sugar onto the plastic so the cookies seemed hidden by a snowstorm.

BSled cookiesut aside from presentation, the stunning difference was in the style of cookie. My soft and luscious cookies paled in physical comparison to their contributions — cookies created to look like reindeer, snowmen, Santa Claus. They were not so much baked, as constructed. Constructed from purchased cookies and decorations, like an elementary-school art project.Reindeer cookies image

The taste? Not so great. But boy, did they look festive. I knew at once all the neighbor’s kids, when presented with the array of cookies from today’s exchange, would snatch up the fancy Christmas-themed ones and leave mine for the stragglers.

And it was then that I learned a key difference between my previous experiences and my new environment  — here, presentation style is VERY important. Dare I say even more important than substance on occasion.

This love of presentation carries over to all manner of holidays and holiday traditions, including decorating your house, making holiday-appropriate treats and goodies, and even dressing yourself for the holiday occasion (occasions may be Halloween, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, etc. — there are culturally-agreed-upon foods, decor and attire for all of them).

And a smattering of candy balls or glitter makes up for a multitude of flaws.

I’ve adapted over the years, and even have a small collection of festive decor and recipes. But I still love my plain old cookies, and in fact just made a batch this evening. I’ll be bringing them to a friend’s Christmas event tomorrow 🙂

Raspberry Cream Cheese Cookies

  • 1 cup butterRaspberry Cream Cheese Cookies
  • 1 package (250g) cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup raspberry jam
  • powdered sugar

Cream butter and cheese together. And sugar and beat until light. Combine flour and baking powder; stir into creamed mixture, blending well. Press into a ball, wrap and chill overnight (or for a few hours).

Roll out dough 1/8 inch thick on floured surface (it will need to warm up a bit before you can do this). Cut with a 2-3 inch round cookie cutter. Place 1/2 teaspoon of jam in the center of each cookie; fold in half.

Place on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in a 375 degree F oven for 15 minutes, or until set but not browned. Cool and dust with powdered sugar. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

4 thoughts on “A Canadian Gal in the States — Part 1: Style and Substance

  1. YUM! Those sound … and look … delicious. We’re having a baking day tomorrow, and I’ll prep the dough tonight to add these to the list of a couple cookies. I think they’ll be joining chocolate crinkles and a handful of simple sugar cookies that the girls will want simply to decorate. (Presentation!)

    I really enjoyed this post. And to think, it all happened before the days of Pinterest! I can only imagine how the ladies at the gathering have upped their game since! Though, rest assured, there are still some of us Americans who bumble over dress-up and show up with the cookies in plain old clear Ziploc. Or perhaps even store-brand baggies. 😉

    I also chuckled because your impressions of style over substance so closely mirrors my impression of my “second” culture. In so many ways, I make the same observations about Italy (my husband’s home country). The substance is different … rather than handcrafted reindeer cookies, the presentation generally has to do with a/ fashion or b/ keeping up with very specific social graces, but it’s there!

    In everyday life, it’s the little things like having a house dress or pajamas and slippers that one wears all day, most every day, behind closed doors, but when it’s time to go out, even to the market, the pressed pants or nice skirt come out with the best shoes and gold jewelry on each of the three necessary jewelry points: ears, neck, wrists. The makeup goes on, and there’s a whole new air of sophistication.

    But then it extends beyond the everyday too. Party favors for wedding guests aren’t simple tchotchkes as they are here; they’re fancy linen or crystal or silver, something that shows the guests that you have the means to marry. There’s a particular way to serve a coffee and a treat to a guest, and you don’t want to risk offending someone by not offering in the proper manner.

    And then there’s business. I recall a business competition in college. There were teams from 16 countries from around the world, one from Italy (the school I attended when I studied abroad). I think there was actually a team there from Canada that year too … McGill, I believe! Anyhow, real business wanting to expand operations internationally; each team had something like three days to research, find a solution and make a presentation. I believe the team that won was American and could best be described as having marginal graphics in their presentation slides and dressed in business casual. The Italian team, on the other hand, had fancy graphics. They’d rehearsed finishing each others’ sentences. They had brought identical suits, ties and shoes and clearly spent a lot of time grooming. They were charming and sweet. But the substance? Totally lacking … one of the least innovative teams in the competition. It was all show, but if you looked past the glam and the glitz, you scratched your head and wondered what had just happened! Sort of liking biting into one of those impeccably designed, poorly baked Christmas cookies.

    1. So interesting how we view another culture based on our own experiences and upbringing! Thanks so much for your insight and your fascinating stories of Italian culture. I wonder what they think of our eccentricities? It all makes the world richer, although sometimes leaves us scratching our heads a little. Enjoy the baking and send me a photo of your finished goodies if you get a chance 😉

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