“It’s like our version of fruitcake,” said my Roman friend Enrico during my first Christmas in the Eternal City in 2002 as he sliced a piece of panettone onto a plate. As soon as he uttered the words “fruit” and “cake” in dangerous succession of each other, I lost my appetite, thinking of the “delicacy” Americans have relegated to a holiday culinary punch line.
I like to think of myself as open minded, especially when on the road. I’ve lived in Prague, Paris, and Rome, and have gluttonously celebrated holidays in each place. And while I didn’t end up eating the spongy, candied-fruit-studded dessert that night, I eventually learned that one person’s panettone is not just another person’s fruitcake. Enrico’s sweet of choice is what Pistachio baklava is to a Greek or amaranth-laced dulce de alegria (which means “sweets of joy”) is to a Mexican or a cardamom-scented cannoli-like krumkake is to a Norwegian. Holiday desserts—whether at home or abroad—are more than just the last course of a big meal.
My moment of clarity came a few years ago in Prague, when a Czech friend invited me to celebrate Christmas with her family. The traditional main courses are carp and potato salad—two reasons, in my opinion, to consider fasting for the holidays. Not wanting to insult my hosts, I ate some fish and starchy salad—but had plenty of room for dessert. I feared the worst.
The smell of just-baked vanilla-scented goodness hit me first. I was thousands of miles (and a couple decades) away from my grandma’s house in Sumner, Iowa, yet the scent instantly brought me back there. My grandma wasn’t Czech, but, as it turned out, she had a recipe similar to these valilkove rohlicky, crescent-shaped Christmas cookies made with walnuts, vanilla, and butter. And if the aroma transported me to the Midwest, my first bite brought forth memories long buried in my psyche.
Later that night, as I was putting on my jacket to leave, Vera, my friend’s mom, handed me a few tin-foil-wrapped packs to take home. Potato salad in one. Carp in another. And, finally, vanilla crescents. I ate them on the way home, staring out the tram window at the spires of Prague, but feeling like a boy in at my grandma’s house in Iowa. And I realized then that somewhere out there, someone was eating fruitcake—and loving every bite.
David Farley is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Travel + Leisure.