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On Cakes and Colonization

The Italian pastries at Dianda’s Bakery are a Mission district staple, but for Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, they offer something more: a bittersweet taste of home.

 

My family’s move from Ethiopia to the United States was cause for celebration. We arrived in San Francisco on a bright Sunday in June nearly two decades ago and made our way east across the Bay Bridge to our new home in Richmond—where aunts, uncles and family friends welcomed us with a bountiful spread of injera and rich Ethiopian stews.

When the time came to have dessert, my relatives brought out a large cake covered in whipped cream frosting with powder-blue flowers piped along its edges—a rum torte from Dianda’s Bakery, an Italian-American pastry shop in the Mission, I later learned. But I would have believed it if someone told me the cake had arrived straight from Ethiopia, just like me. After all, this was the same Italian rum torte that was served at all my childhood birthday parties in Addis Ababa, at every holiday gathering at my grandparents’ house and on countless weekends when there was nothing in particular to celebrate besides the occasion of having cake. Or it tasted the same, anyway.

In the years since, cakes from Dianda’s have been a constant presence at almost all of my family’s celebrations. And we’re not alone. The bakery is a beloved institution in the Bay Area’s Eritrean and Ethiopian communities—our go-to dessert spot for birthdays, New Year’s parties and even weddings. The history of how Italian bakeries came to be a source of nostalgia and comfort for East African families like mine is a complicated history. The clearest part of it is rooted in pure wickedness: Italy’s encroachment into present-day Eritrea began in the late 1880s, with Italy eventually taking colonial control—a regime that stretched until 1947. During that time, Italians descended upon the capital city of Asmara, transforming it into La Piccola Roma, a little Rome built by the labor of Eritreans who were forbidden from patronizing the new wave of Italian cafes due to racial segregation. In 1936, Italy crept farther south, carrying on a bloody occupation of Ethiopia that lasted for five years under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. During that time, Italian-owned businesses burgeoned in Addis Ababa—especially auto garages, restaurants and bakeries.

The remnants from those Italian decades appear in both countries in varying degrees. On the culinary front, it’s apparent in our partiality to pasta dishes such as lasagna. As writer Hannah Giorgis wrote last May in online cooking magazine Taste, Ethiopian and Eritrean versions of lasagna are a “culinary rebellion,” adapted to fit our palate with spices like berbere. But when it comes to sweets, our preferences lie loyally with traditional Italian cakes and pastries. In fact, neither country has an indigenous dessert of which to speak. Instead, you might find tiramisu listed as the dessert option at an Eritrean restaurant.

 

It’s this craving for Italian sweets that has led countless Eritrean and Ethiopian expats to Dianda’s ever since the first large wave of East African immigrants came to the Bay Area in the 1970s. With its old-fashioned glass counters and uniformed clerks, the place even looks like the Italian bakeries that many East African patrons grew up with back home. Husband and wife Elio and Enrica Dianda started the bakery in 1962 with recipes from their hometown of Lucca, Italy, and not much has changed since. Specialties like Napoleon slices, palmines and jam-lined almond tortes have filled the bakery’s display cases for decades. “We’re very old-school. We try our best to keep up the tradition,” says co-owner Floyd Goldberg, who along with fellow longtime Dianda’s employees Sergio Flores and Luis Peña bought the business 16 years ago.

The most arduous part of that tradition is making the custard that’s used in many of Dianda’s cream-filled pastries and cakes. “We make it from scratch. Whole milk, eggs, sugar, fresh vanilla,” Goldberg explains. “You bring the milk to a boil—and we don’t use cornstarch; we use flour—so you have to cook it out.” The resulting custard is substantively different, even from the versions you’ll find at other Italian pastry shops around the city. It’s perfectly smooth, tinged with the warmth of vanilla and rum. The only other custard I’ve tasted that’s similar is the one at Enrico’s, my family’s favorite bakery in Addis Ababa.

Enough of the Bay Area’s sizable Eritrean and Ethiopian expat community has patronized Dianda’s over the past several decades for Goldberg to take notice of this somewhat surprising core customer base. (In fact, while I was waiting to speak to him, a young East African man came in for a pastry.) “I got the story from a lot of the clientele coming from the East Bay. Very, very good customers,” he tells me in his heavy Brooklyn accent. “Most of the time you get the milhojas. Or you get a lot of rum cakes… very popular! So we know when your holidays are.” His East African clientele rarely buy only one dessert, Goldberg explains. He’s right: In my family, we almost always buy the cakes two at a time.

But after yet another year of holidays marked with Dianda’s rum tortes, my community’s loyalty to Italian desserts started to gnaw at me. How could I, and so many others, find comfort in foods whose entry into our culture was so violent and cruel? Why do we still hold on so proudly and strongly to Italian customs? I called Giorgis, the author of the story about Ethiopian and Eritrean lasagna, to see if she shared the same discomfort. “Is the project of decolonizing our cuisine, is that one that ends with removing all Italian influences? Or is it an understanding that for me, the association of those things is going to be with home and Ethiopian people? That, for me, in recent years, has become enough,” Giorgis said. “When I think about tiramisu, I don’t think about [Italy]. I think about celebrations with family.”

My mother, whose love of the almond torte at Dianda’s is well-documented, put it this way: “[Those who died], their strength and their courage, I carry that with me. But I can’t think of the evil every day. If you hold on to that part, where does it take you?”

That Sunday, when we first landed in America, my family was greeted by waves of new customs that demanded a tiring alertness. At our new apartment, surrounded by familiar faces and food, we were finally able to relax and begin the long process of trying to make a place for ourselves here. My first bite of the Dianda’s rum torte was no different. It was a bittersweet reminder that someplace like home can exist here too.2883 Mission St. (near 25th Street), 415.647.5469

Read the author's recommendations for what to order at Dianda's here.

 

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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