On Thanksgivings and Christmases, my family makes sure that King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls are amongst the many foods available at our fancier than usual dinners. They’re soft to the touch and tenderly sweet without being a full blown pastry. They’re so irresistible that more often than not, I find myself going for a second roll during these meals.
There’s a reason why Hawaiian sweet rolls are part of these meals. It’s a head nod to my grandfather’s ancestry, who were of Portuguese descent. Hawaiian sweet bread is very similar in taste and texture to Portuguese sweet bread, and due to not being able to find a lot of the latter where I live, the former has always served as a permanent substitute.
It’s funny that Portuguese sweet bread is hard to come by in the part of the Bay Area I grew up in, for it once had a thriving Portuguese population. However, the numbers have dwindled over the decades, with a few Portuguese cultural centers and the annual Holy Ghost Festival being reminders of the numerous who were once there.
At the same time, I recently have come to realize how the Hawaiian sweet rolls also represent a reminder of part of my family’s history; and that is that on one side of my grandfather’s family, prior to immigrating to the United States, they had immigrated from Portugal to Hawaii.
History of the Hawaiian Sweet Roll in My Family
It was in the late 1800s when they made the journey to the islands, which was not uncommon at the time. Thousands of Portuguese immigrants were making the journey there, in search of work. The Portuguese were a bit of a standout immigrant ethnic group, for they were one of the few who were not from Asia. However, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t added their contributions to what makes Hawaii today.
It’s because of the Portuguese that the ukulele is now a commonly associated musical instrument to the islands. It’s also due to Portuguese influence that malasadas (deep-fried pastries) are a popular treat to eat. For that matter, it should be no surprise that Hawaiian and Portuguese sweet breads share a number of common traits.
The side of the my grandfather’s family that had immigrated to Hawaii prior to the United States didn’t get along with the other side, for the sole reason of – shall we say – “authenticity.” The latter side denounced the former’s Portuguese identities due to living in Hawaii, even going as far as calling them Hawaiians as a way of insult. The former, on the other hand, begged to differ. The two sides never got along, which is why in his youth, my grandfather had to play peacekeeper.
Fast forward many decades later and I look at Hawaiian sweet rolls with a particular fondness now; not only out of nostalgia, but also out of affirmation for my family’s ties to Hawaii. It’s both a substitute for lack of Portuguese sweet bread and a reminder.
To be a mixed race person can already be a crazy journey. However, to also be aware of the role my family has had in the history of a place such as Hawaii brings a new light to the life-long project known as my identity. This is a part of my family history that I’m eager to explore in the long run.