A delicious, lasting tradition

Christmas Archive Photo James Andersen is seen celebrating Christmas around age 3 or 4 in this childhood photo.

When it comes to the Christmas season, one of the things I love most about it is the food.

With my mom’s delicious array of homemade Christmas cookies, a terrific Christmas Eve meal, and peppermint-stick ice cream, to name a few, there’s no shortage of good eats during the winter months.

In fact, some of my family’s most cherished annual holiday traditions involve food and there’s one in particular I look forward to every year.

Once a year, every December, we sit down for a meal known as risengrod (RIS-EN-GROD). This is a Scandanavian tradition that’s popular in countries like Denmark, where some of my dad’s family is from. Risengrod is essentially a hot rice porridge prepared with white rice, milk and water. Once it’s served up, you put butter and cinnamon on top of it.

There are two variations of this, a hot and cold dessert version called Risalamande (REESE-A-LA-MOND), but my family tends to stick with the hot version. The meal is delicious (not to mention piping hot), but what makes this so memorable for us is the twist that comes with the meal: a peeled almond is thrown into the pot of risengrod, stirred in and dished up. Whoever finds the almond in their dish gets a prize to open at the end of the meal. This prize is known as the mandelgave (MUNDLE-GAHVA), which means “almond gift.” The gift is usually Christmas-themed and becomes part of our ever-growing collection of holiday decorations.

You’re not allowed to dig through your bowl once it’s in front of you, so there’s always a light element of suspense as the bowls grow emptier and the almond has yet to be found. I’m sure it happened a few times, but I can’t recall the almond ever being found right away, so it makes for an interesting and entertaining meal. There are plenty of smirks and smiles around the table, too, as everyone tries to play coy.

When it comes to finding the almond, there’s usually some trickery involved. It’s not uncommon for the eventual winner to slip the almond in their drink (usually a glass of milk) and hold up their empty glass at the end of the meal, revealing the almond’s hiding place. In some cases, a duplicate almond has been used to throw everyone off until someone finds the real one. Other times, the almond has been hidden in a napkin or in someone’s cheek.

Trickery or not, it becomes evident pretty quickly who’s got it, after you hear an unmistakable crunch when someone takes a bite.

Growing up in a family of five, I believed I had a shot to win every year, as I figured my odds were pretty good. But, as I got older, I found out that the odds weren’t always in my favor.

In fact, for many years, the winner was predetermined.

The previous year’s winner decides the order in which everyone gets served, but my dad is always the server and the almond always found its way into the bowl of the person who’s “turn” it was to win. In this way, very rarely has the same person won twice in a row–my parents have won several times, too–and that keeps things fair, especially if you’re doing it with young kids, as my parents did with my two younger brothers and I.

When my parents wised me up to this as I got older, I didn’t mind. But it backfired a little bit when I was about 15. That year, there was no almond to be found at the end of our annual meal.

As it turned out, I was supposed to win, and there were some confused looks on my parents’ faces when I didn’t have it. We laugh about it now, but I still plead ignorance because it’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve got an almond in your mouth.

Long story short, we did it again about a week later and — lo and behold — the almond wound up in my bowl.

As a kid and even now, it’s always exciting to find the almond and add another item to our Christmas collection. Snowglobes have been a popular gift over the years, as have ornaments, small statues and other holiday decorations. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve won the mandelgave, but one of my favorites is a small snowglobe ornament I won when I was five that depicts Santa Claus going down the chimney.

The cold version of the dish, risalamande, is made the same way as risengrod, but vanilla and whipped cream are added during preparation and the dish is topped with a cherry sauce. An almond can also be mixed into this dish and the winner typically gets some kind of candy as a prize. Marzipan pigs are a traditional gift, but candy bars like Toblerone are another option.

Now that we’ve all gotten older, the winner is truly a surprise and it’s a fun part of the holiday season, whether you win or not. I’m thankful my parents put an emphasis on creating lasting memories with the risengrod meal, keeping a longstanding family tradition going and ensuring the gift the winner recieved every year was a keepsake they would treasure forever, rather than than a momentary thing that would be discarded after a few months.

When I celebrate Christmas with my family every year, it’s always fun to look at our Christmas decorations and look for mandelgave from the past. As I’ve gotten older, the best part of Christmastime for me is creating lasting memories with loved ones, and I’m very thankful that risengrod and the mandelgave continue to be part of a proud family tradition.

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.