Some of the strongest memories we have of family revolve around food. Whether you think back fondly to weekend suppers, holiday feasts, or just everyday meals, stories can almost always be woven around cooking, good or bad. How much more appetizing would your family history be if the account of your grandmother’s life was spiced with her legendary recipe for corn pudding or watermelon salad?

Christmas Recipe Box by Shimelle Laine CC BY 2.0

Do you have memories around learning to prepare a special dish (or watching someone else cook it)? Did the preparation duties for a particular recipe ever get handed over to you? Was there something you could never get the hang of, no matter how often you tried?

My dad’s mother used to prepare a table full of classic Southern food every time we visited. As I got older, she instructed me in the preparation of at least three specific dishes that I recall: cream slaw, salmon cakes, and biscuits. I caught on to the salmon cakes well enough that Grandmother eventually stopped making them, but always asked me to prepare them when I was in town. My sister perfected the slaw recipe, but I don’t think either of us ever could turn out a biscuit that passed muster!

Here are some ideas to get you warmed up:
  • Think back to traditional dishes associated with your cultural heritage. I grew up in an area with many families of Italian descent, so while it’s not a part of my story, many of my classmates surely had a nonna who made to-die-for Sunday gravy. Maybe the memory of your abuela’s tamales still makes your mouth water, or perhaps it’s the savory pelmeni that your father’s babushka taught him to roll. What is unique about a particular dish or cooking style that makes you associate it with your family?
  • Some of us reminisce about less traditional recipes. In third or fourth grade, my class assembled a cookbook of contributions from each of our families; if memory serves, my contribution was Mini-Pizzas: jarred spaghetti sauce on an open-faced English muffin, topped with sliced hot dogs and shredded cheese, and broiled in the toaster oven. I suppose that even the most low-brow recipes can become traditional over time.
  • Times of scarcity can necessitate some very creative dishes that take their own place in a cultural heritage. In Depression-era East Tennessee, lemons were few and far between, so the locals substituted vinegar in their lemon meringue pie recipes. Vinegar Pie is still a local specialty there and really tastes much better than it sounds!
  • Try writing about shared experiences in the kitchen. When your family gathers for holiday meals, does everyone pitch in to help with preparations or is there a kitchen czar that chases bystanders off to the backyard or living room? Does your family set aside days for batch baking or canning? Many traditions have been handed down over a bubbling pot of jelly or a rack of cooling apple pies.

Especially as we head into the end-of-year holiday season, take some time between dinner, drinks, and dessert to think about the role that food plays in your family’s story. Ask questions, share memories, and write it all down so that the flavors don’t get lost over time.

And maybe give that biscuit recipe just one more try.

Homemade Biscuits by Scott Wilcoxson CC BY 2.0

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