Tips and Tricks for preserving your most delicious memories.
By: Emily Groleau, Root & Seed Editor
"Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life."
— Anthony Bourdain
Food has a unique ability to envelope us like a much-needed hug: it can bring the comfort of home from miles away, remind us of a loved one we miss, and create wordless bonds between those who share our table. In a past article, we identified food as the ultimate culture spark that is able to transcend time, place, and even language. Sometimes this spark of (re)connection can be found in a simple smell, or perhaps the flavour of an ingredient that takes us back to childhood. And then there’s the special spark felt when we are able to truly capture these feelings by recreating a traditional family recipe. There are many ways to go about preserving food traditions, but here are a few tips and tricks that you may find helpful.
Host a conversation
If you’d like, you can make your journey to preserving food traditions an entire family affair! Gather everyone around a table and ask for input, or maybe focus on getting the most insights from an elder, such as a grandparent. A great resource for finding conversation-starters around food, or simply recording and safely storing conversations, is Root & Seed’s Conversation Tool. If you’re looking for some additional question prompts, a few themes to consider delving into as a family include:
Food of the past – What is your earliest memory of food? Do you have a funny food memory, or one you view as bittersweet? What is a comfort food you associate with your childhood? What do you recall of your childhood kitchen (sights, smells, etc.), or your first kitchen away from home? How did you learn to cook?
Food of the present — Who would you say is the best cook in our family? Do you associate a certain person’s cooking, or a specific dish, with love? What recipes from the past do you feel have been changed a bit in our family over the years? Do we have any new food traditions that are unique to our family?
Imparting Food Heritage — What recipe(s) or food traditions do you most hope to see passed down to future generations? If you left your home country, are there any traditional recipes you miss that you’d like our family to try? Do you have any recipes that were written and handed down to you? What about an inherited cookbook?
Ask for recipes or a lesson
You can also ask family members to write out their own recipes and share them. These might be hand-written on cards, but email or a live document can work, too! (Recipe contributions may even be a thoughtful gift to request for birthdays or special holidays.)
If a loved one has a special way of imparting knowledge in person, you might even consider asking for a cooking or baking lesson for a particular dish. You can record aspects of this lesson, or perhaps the beauty in it is gaining the knowledge by “doing,” so that you can one day hand down the secrets of the recipe yourself in the same way.
Find stories in small details
You can further make a mission of noting some food observations on your own, or even ask family members to do the same as part of a larger collaborative effort. Maybe you have an ambitious end goal in mind, such as creating a family cookbook from your compiled recipes, or even writing a blog to share your family’s food and culture with others. Recipes can bring added meaning when accompanied by personal anecdotes or a thoughtful reflection. It can be easy to take the present for granted, but a lot of times what we return to later—and what may hold a wealth of meaning to future generations—are the small memories.
Our friend Jen's favourite holiday memory revolves around food and is a true relic of the 60's: Christmas Jello. She recalls the ornate jello molds (bells, bows, and trees) each child would each get to choose from, fighting over the red vs. the green jello with her brothers, the mandarin oranges and shredded carrots they would mix into it, and the perfect crisp leaf of iceberg lettuce they would place the finished jello on. It's more than a jello salad recipe, it's the details that surround your experiences with the preparing and enjoying of that dish.
So, when you notice or remember a specific feeling or detail surrounding a food, write it down. Treasured details to preserve may include the more imperfect or quirky qualities that make a loved one’s take on a dish uniquely theirs. Maybe your Nonna always baked brownies in the same Pyrex with blue flowers on it, for instance. There may be recollections of kitschy aprons that have stained with stories from decades past, slightly overcooked pancakes with pristine, crispy edges, or familiar smells that you will forever associate with the preparation of a favourite stew.
Explore further with research
Perhaps you don’t know the full history or cultural significance behind some foods. An internet search can often provide a richer background behind your family’s dishes and traditions— it may even evoke memories of more personal stories or family details!
The history behind New England's famous Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins is legendary, but when you add Aunt Joanne's story to the recipe, it becomes personal: "I have fond memories of going to Jordan Marsh during the holiday season with my mother, aunts and cousins to see the Enchanted Village and shop for Christmas. The trip always included a stop at the bakery and a half dozen muffins always came home with us."
Writing down key findings (or even taking a deeper dive with some introspection) in this broader context can be a meaningful addition to the food memories you keep.
There are many ways to approach preserving food traditions. How has your own family imparted food traditions and recipes in the past? Share below, and you may even inspire others to spark meaningful conversations with their own family!