My daughter, Anna, and I are looking through my mother’s recipe collection, and it’s a mess. Packed in the small binder are clippings torn from magazine and newspaper food sections, handwritten recipes jotted down on fragile pieces of paper, plus a hodgepodge of notes tucked in between—to-do lists, witticisms she liked, even a letter she wrote to my dad postmarked 1950.
With entries such as Roz’s Broccoli Salad, Margie’s Swedish Meatballs, and dishes made with Minute Rice or Bisquick, it’s far from cutting-edge cuisine. It’s a lot more.
Reflecting decades of the publications she read, the people she knew, the family dishes she cooked and the random stuff she loved to accumulate, it’s a time capsule, a historic trove of my mother’s life. She passed away four years ago, and every time I thumb through this chaotic chronicle—with her personal comments and food stains in the margins—I feel a warm instant connection to her and the past.
I, too, have my own paper recipe collection—admittedly better organized—but I worry that future generations will not be handing down these tactile treasures. It’s not unlike what’s happened to family photo albums. Anna, 26, and her friends find and file recipes online and cook with their phones beside their frying pans.
The modes and means of documenting recipes have changed over time. We’ve come a long way from Wikipedia’s description of the earliest known recipes—recorded on cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia in 1730 B.C. Jump ahead a few thousand years to the era of New World settlements and “many of the early recipe collections were not published books but handwritten household journals, passed from mother to daughter…,” according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Kind of like my mother’s jumbled journal.
So maybe we’re at a turning point. And it’s certainly not just millennials who are bypassing paper.
My friend Georgia Guhin, 68, is a devotee of Paprika, one of several recipe apps that enable users to upload and file recipes into categories, as well as compile grocery lists and meal plans. Georgia, who lives in Chevy Chase and up until about two years ago had gone the paper recipe route, now has uploaded nearly 600 recipes—including re-creations of the dishes her grandmother, who was born in the country of Georgia, and her mother prepared—and says the Paprika app makes it “much easier to search, easier to share and easier to follow a recipe than from a stained piece of paper.”
This seems to confirm Anna’s perspective—that in the digital era, family recipes aren’t being lost; they’re just changing format. The most meaningful part of a passed-down recipe is that it’s a cherished dish that a loved one once made and ate, she tells me.
In fact, she would be afraid to damage the handwritten recipe for Great-Grandma Fanny’s cabbage soup. There’s only one of it, she says as we find the recipe written in my mother’s distinctive penmanship, but technology affords infinite copies.
Great-Grandma Fanny was my mother’s grandmother, a Romanian immigrant and fabulous cook who lived with my mother and her family in Mount Vernon, New York, and would prepare steaming plates of her Old World dishes for relatives who might drop by for Sunday supper. She never learned to read or write English, and cooked by memory. My mother grew up watching her, and at some point jotted down the cabbage soup recipe from her recollections.
Of course, learning how to cook a special dish from a relative is the way many family recipes have endured, and still do.
Vastine Nandram, 86, of Rockville, a Jamaican who immigrated to the Washington, D.C., area in 1981, brought with her the knowledge of how to make sweet potato pudding, sorrel, cornmeal porridge, ackee, rice and peas, and other dishes she learned from her grandmother back in Redwood, a town about 20 miles northwest of Kingston. “We don’t use recipes. We just cook,” she says about her culinary practices, then and now.
Same goes for her daughter, who immigrated to Maryland when she was 15, and now lives in Silver Spring. When it comes to the Jamaican dishes she grew up on, Natalie Nandram, 54, learned to re-create them from watching her mother and asking questions. By memory, she prepares Jamaican dishes daily now, using the internet to look up recipes that aren’t part of her culture, such as lasagna or dishes made in a slow cooker. Her own two daughters have grown up watching her, their grandmother, and their Jamaican father cook.
Natalie Nandram’s daughter Tenay Graham, 24, says “a lot of people who had a hand in raising me were Jamaican.” As she got older, they would let her help in the kitchen. Now she reproduces her family’s dishes by remembering their taste, aroma and appearance. But the part that really draws her to the kitchen is knowing how food brings people together. “We love to host. I want to keep that same tradition,” Graham says.
Like my mother’s grandmother, the roles of maternal gatekeepers in passing down recipes can’t be underestimated. In her Introduction to Nutrition class at Montgomery College, Sara Ducey, collegewide chair for Integrative Studies and director of the Paul Peck Humanities Institute, asks students to write a food memory essay that “tells the story of this one special food and your relationship with it.” Students are asked to describe the food, the basics of its preparation, and the story of how it contributes to their identity and place in their family’s culture. Students from more than 150 countries attend the college.
In the essays, the role of grandmothers is discussed most frequently. Afterward, students often tell Ducey that they are so grateful for the assignment because they had to describe the preparation of a special dish. “What if my grandma died, and I didn’t know how to make this? This food is so important to me,” Ducey says they tell her.
Some of the reasons family recipes are so important are described by Valerie J. Frey in her book Preserving Family Recipes: How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions. Frey notes that aside from illustrating stories, personalities and what life was like for ancestors we never met, family recipes prevent the legacies of loved ones from fading. “And finally, we want to see our own lives in a kinship context, sharing experiences and knowledge with family members now and also creating a personal legacy as a gift for generations to come,” she writes.
Nellie Thompson of Silver Spring and her husband, Brian, whose mother is from Grenada and father is from Jamaica, are currently creating a legacy for their children. They are experimenting in the kitchen to re-create his family’s recipes, as there are no records. The couple hopes to pass down a written collection to each of their four kids, now ages 14 to 20.
Similarly, Gaithersburg resident Rivka Alvial intends to photocopy and distribute her grandmother’s recipe collection to her siblings someday. The oldest of nine children, Alvial, 31, has strong connections to her family’s food cultures and the celebrations around them. Her mother is from Venezuela, her father from Chile, and both are Jewish. While Alvial has memorized the preparation of many family dishes, her maternal grandmother kept track of them in written form. “To rewrite them or type them wouldn’t do them justice,” she says, adding that her grandmother passed down the habit of writing recipes on paper. “I always have a notebook out in front of me,” says Alvial, a pastry chef who has worked in numerous area restaurants and now runs the beverage program at miXt Food Hall in Brentwood in Prince George’s County.
Lisa Auerbach understands the power of the handwritten word, although she doesn’t practice it herself. Auerbach usually copies a recipe from a website, puts it in a Word document and then saves it to a file on her computer. If she finds a recipe in a magazine or cookbook, she’ll take a photo of it with her phone and save it to the file. Her iPad is on her kitchen counter in North Bethesda, and she reads from it as she cooks. However, Auerbach writes via email, “None of these ways compare to pulling out one of my mother’s recipes and trying to see what is written underneath a stain from one of the ingredients. Does that say butter or bitter? Is it 1 ounce or pound? I don’t know because what might be chocolate that by now is over 50 years old, is staining the print. While I use modern ways of saving recipes, I get a sweet feeling of nostalgia when I pull out an old written and stained recipe from my mother… .”
While it’s hard to generalize about how certain age groups hold on to family recipes, an example of the transition from spoken to written word to digital archiving comes from Timothy Yu, a third-generation member of a Montgomery County restaurant family. Yu, 29, is one of the sons of Janet Yu, the owner of Hollywood East Cafe in Wheaton; he lives with his mom in Olney. He tells me that at China Royal, the Silver Spring restaurant his maternal grandparents owned, they cooked dishes by memory. His mother, who worked at the restaurant as a teenager, re-created the recipes on paper. “She carried two notepads, one for taking orders, one for writing down recipes,” Timothy Yu says, adding that she eventually tested the recipes, too.
And now he has converted all the ingredient measurements to the metric system and filed the recipes in documents on his computer.
As for me, I don’t see going digital with my recipe collection. Anna will have to weed through my bulging accordion file folder to find the recipe for the ice cream cake I used to make every year for her birthday and my Thanksgiving squash casserole or corn pudding. Thankfully, the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich, a technique I learned from Francois Dionot, the owner of the former L’Academie de Cuisine cooking schools in Bethesda and Gaithersburg, is in her head.
As for my mother’s collection, the fact is that aside from the cabbage soup recipe, I never use it. I just love having it.
In a world saturated with technology, there’s value and meaning in the physical thing, at least for me. And maybe for future generations.
When I ask Anna whether someday she will want her grandmother’s and my paper recipe collections, she doesn’t hesitate. “Without question,” she answers.
Rivka Alvial’s family’s Venezuelan Chicken Avocado Arepa
Makes 4 arepas
This recipe comes from Rivka Alvial’s grandmother, Walkiria Torrealba, who taught Rivka’s mother, Carmen D’elia Alvial, how to make it. In turn, Carmen has shared it with Rivka and her siblings, and the family prepares it often, usually at least once a week. The recipe is slightly adjusted from the original.
For the poached chicken:
1 quart water
2 chicken breasts
2 bay leaves
1½ teaspoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
For the reina pepiada filling:
Shredded chicken (from the above poached chicken)
2 ripe avocados, mashed
½ cup mayonnaise
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 lime, juiced
1 jalapeno, seeded and diced (optional)
For the arepa:
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups P.A.N. brand harina de maíz blanco (white cornmeal)
2 tablespoons flaxseed or wheat germ (optional)
1. To make the chicken, combine all ingredients in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 20 minutes or until the chicken reaches 165 degrees. With 2 forks, shred the chicken. (Rotisserie or other cooked chicken can be substituted.)
2. To prepare the filling, combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix well.
3. To make the arepas, place water and salt in a big bowl and gently combine with a wooden spoon. Slowly add the P.A.N. harina and optional flaxseed or wheat germ little by little, working out any lumps. Once the dough is combined, let sit for about 5 minutes. Separate into four equally sized balls and then gently flatten in the palms of your hands to create a disk about ½- to ¾-inch thick. In a lightly greased skillet, cook the arepas over medium to medium-high heat for 6 minutes. Flip and let cook on the other side for about 5 to 6 minutes until lightly golden.
4. Cut the arepa horizontally and fill with the reina pepiada filling.
Preserving family recipes
My Great-Grandma Fanny’s cabbage soup is such a memorable (and delicious) family dish that my brother had the recipe printed on a wooden cutting board and gave it to me as a birthday gift a few years ago. He ordered it online from Etsy, whose craftspeople offer numerous vehicles for memorializing family recipes—on plates, tea towels, coffee mugs, casserole dishes, serving platters and more.
For those who still like the written word, Amazon and other online sites offer unique and interesting recipe files, folders and special keepsake collection notebooks.
A tip from the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C., steered me to Constance Carter, the retired head of the science and reference section at the Library of Congress, and a font of knowledge on historic cookbooks. When it comes to family recipe collecting, two of her recommendations are Preserving Family Recipes: How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions by Valerie J. Frey, and The Keepsake Cookbook: Gathering Delicious Memories One Recipe at a Time by Belinda Hulin.
Carole Sugarman, a longtime food writer who lives in Chevy Chase, has also saved the handwritten letters her mother wrote to her.