I was 5 or 6 when I first encountered it, while rummaging through the cabinets in my grandparents’ kitchen in India. Behind jars of ghee and cumin, a round metal canister shimmered midnight blue, its lid printed with images of cookies in varying designs: round, rectangular, pretzel-shaped. I fumbled with the thing, almost dropping it in my desperation, before finally twisting the lid off — only to find nothing inside but loose change.
This was the trademark tin of Denmark’s Royal Dansk company. One of the world’s largest producers of butter cookies, the company bakes more than 25,000 tons of the treats every year. Now the brand has established dominance: For customers around the world, its blue tin, with its elegant cursive lettering and quaint Danish farmhouse, is inseparable from the experience of the cookies themselves. Certainly this was true for my family, who bought them as much for the containers as for their contents.
So, while that early disappointment should have made me wary, the Royal Dansk tin became a hypnotic object for me. After we left India, another one showed up in our pantry in Canada. My brother and I devoured the biscuits, but the tin remained. Over the course of years, that container witnessed our lives mutate as we became dully classic examples of the immigrant experience. At school, other kids mocked my name, my accent and the bowl haircut my father always got me. My parents, bewildered by Calgary’s subarctic winters and the labyrinthine task of finding jobs there, fought constantly. Every few days, I opened the blue tin, as if there might be one last cookie to assuage my sadness. Of course, what I was really looking for was a portal, a vessel to return me to India, to my grandparents’ garden, with its guar plants and an old cow grazing out back. Instead, I found uncooked papad, brittle and inedible. Still, I kept returning to the tin, always wishing there’d be something different to find. Desire overpowers logic, rewriting memory and rewiring the brain.
We were not unique in our attachment to the blue tin: It’s ubiquitous in many Asian and Latino households. As generations of immigrants know, there is no topping the Danish Butter Cookie tin as an all-purpose repository. Sturdy and resealable, the tins often remain in our pantries and shoe closets long after the cookies are finished, used for stowing sewing supplies, loose change or dry goods, like cumin and mustard seeds. As a result, the tins have become iconic for presaging disappointment — for not containing what the packaging promises. Drooling in anticipation of sweets only to be confronted with spools of thread feels like an apt metaphor for the immigrant experience: Our families come here expecting the sublime, only to find instead something utilitarian at best, and joyless at worst.
On this new continent, my family came undone — hardly even a family anymore. My parents divorced just before I turned 16. I lived with my mom as my dad and I drifted apart. My brother, meanwhile, moved first to America, then to Europe. Over the years, we, too, lost touch. Geography, American individualism and a thousand large and small hurts pulled us apart like a fraying seam.
Last year, the blue tin appeared in my life again. My fiancé and I were visiting the Dominican Republic with his parents. The beaches were stunning, the ocean was warm, my future in-laws were kind. Yet the ambiguous grief of always vacationing with another family, never my own, hung over me. And now, here was the tin in our Airbnb, a gift from our host, a reminder of all that would never be mine again: a time when my grandparents were still alive and I could dig through their kitchen pantry and cupboards; a time when my brother and I still fought over the last cookie; a time when my parents watched us, smiling and exasperated, our father’s arms encircling our mother’s shoulders. Like the serene Danish cottage on the tin’s lid, my past and the family it holds appear as almost unbearably beautiful.
When we returned from that trip, I bought my own tin of Danish butter cookies. I ate them immediately, then filled the tin with photos — mingling crumbs and pictures, a veritable mess of nostalgia. I reach for this tin regularly, mimicking my teenage self, full of a hunger she could neither understand nor sate. I don’t fully understand this hunger, either, but I know how to fill it: I look at the photos. One is of my parents, not long after they were married. They smile at the camera bashfully, young and smooth-skinned and full of hope, blind to the ways life would prise them apart. Another photo is of me and my brother as kids, playing cards aboard a moving train, whiling away the time as we whiled away thousands of hours: together.
Back then, I couldn’t have imagined a future where I would barely speak to him, or to my father. For that blindness, I’m glad. For all of it, I’m glad. Despite what our culture may tell us, finding new family doesn’t replace the loss of family of origin. Knowing that the cookie tin didn’t hold what I wanted never stopped me from opening it.
Raksha Vasudevan is a writer living in Denver.
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