A Cultural Connection to the Past: The Importance of Passing Down Family Recipes

Tobias Roberts, August 6, 2018

In our diverse and cosmopolitan city, it is entirely possible to have Salvadoran pupusas for breakfast, Polish kielbasa for lunch, and a bowl of steaming Vietnamese pho for dinner. A drive down North Lawrence Avenue in Uptown, to name just one example, will allow you to embark upon a culinary journey spanning at least six of the seven continents. Mexican taco stands, Oriental grocery stores, fancy Ethiopian eateries, and everything in between: there is certainly no reason to settle for a generic, fast-food lunch when you live in Chicago.

While this gastronomic diversity and richness of culinary traditions certainly has its appeal, there are also drawbacks to the seemingly endless array of diverse (and delicious) food options.

Food: The Cultural Connection

Food has always been intimately tied to local cultures. In the past, our agrarian ancestors constructed culinary traditions based on what the land provided and how community came together to celebrate the abundance of the harvest. Inventive and resourceful grandmothers would find new ways to craft delicious and unique recipes from the staple crops that were cultivated from the soil that was tilled by hand. In this sense, food was an essential cultural element that bound people together, enforced a shared sense of identity, and strengthened the sense of community and belonging.

As our current civilization has drifted away from land-based occupations, the cultural element of the food we eat has sadly been replaced by a generic industrial food culture which, besides being extremely unhealthy, also alienates us from any sense of belonging to a traditional culture and community. The boxed and canned foodstuffs on the shelves of our local grocery store are universal in the sense that you can find the same brands in Oregon and Oklahoma, Chicago and Chattanooga. The distinctiveness of local food traditions has sadly been replaced by a globalized food industry that is rootless and not intimately connected to any sense of local culture.

In the United States, migrants and refugees from around the world zealously maintain the cultural-culinary connection even when they leave behind the rice paddies of Southeast Asia for the rolling monocultures of corn surrounding the Chicago area. Ethnic grocery stores and international markets can be found in almost every Chicago neighborhood, and even though many of the foods are imported from thousands of miles away, there is a sense that these “foodscapes” are localized in the sense that they help migrant and refugee population maintain a sense of connection to their community, shared identity, and culture.

Those of us who grew up without a connection to a localized food culture might have certainly relished the exposure to the wealth of culinary traditions from around the world. Eating authentic pad Thai for lunch and Peruvian ceviche for dinner is certainly not a bad thing. However, the lack of intimacy with a certain culinary tradition is also a sort of privation. In many cases, the only remnant of a lasting culinary tradition can be found in those old family cookbooks that are either gathering dust in the attic or buried in some obscure kitchen cabinet.

A Connection to the Places of Our Ethnic and Agrarian Past

In 1800, over 94 percent of the population of the United States lived in rural areas. By 1900, that number had fallen to 60 percent. Today, less than 20 percent of people live in rural areas and only a fraction of those continue to work the land as small farmers. The family recipes that we still maintain, however, often contain connections to the rural places of our agrarian past.

In my own family, every fall we would head to a local apple orchard to purchase several bushels of cider apples. An old, hand-written recipe by my great grandmother would explain the ins and outs of processing hundreds of tart and tarnished apples into a delectably sweet drink. At the bottom of the recipe, and in a different hand-writing that family lore claims is the work of the great grandfather I never met, was the following cunning advice: “Make sure to hide a few gallons from Ma in the cellar to allow for proper fermentation.”

My great grandfather inherited a 60 acre farm in southern Michigan that had, among other things, hundreds of apple trees. Though my family has long since moved away from the hard work of pruning, fertilizing, picking, and the hundreds of other labors that went into maintaining an orchard, the yearly tradition of making our own apple cider continues to this day.

We purchased a small cider press that we found at an antique store to make the cider-making process feel more authentic than simply using an electric juicer, and also, perhaps, to maintain a sense of connection to those hard-working family members of the past. Though it´s close to impossible to grow an apple tree on the windowsill of my fourth floor apartment, the day-long labor of turning sullied apples into gallons of fresh cider also helps me to reminisce and feel a sense of association with the past. And of course, I never miss the opportunity to follow my great-grandfather´s advice and let a few jugs ferment for several weeks until they magically turn into the elixir of hard cider.

Family recipes also help us maintain a rootedness to our own cultural ancestry. Kathleen Jenkins, the Director of Sales & Events for Northern Fork, shares below her mother’s pierogi recipe. She tells that: “When my mom (Arlene) was about 20 years old she asked her grandmother (immigrant from Poland) how to make the pierogi. My great-grandmother threw a pile of flour on the counter and said “this much.” My mother frantically scooped the flour into measuring cups. My great-grandmother then added the egg and water. “Just enough water for it to feel right,” she would say. While kneading the dough she would say “you have to feel that it is right.” And that’s the story! My mother now makes this family recipe once each year, at Christmas time.”

In some cases, the connections that family recipes make to the places of our past are tangible and material. An 84-year-old grandmother from the Yukon Territory in Canada continues to make a weekly batch of sourdough bread from a starter yeast that has been surviving in the family for hundreds of years. The origin of the strain of yeast is unknown, though the family believes that her great grandfather brought it with him when we came to Canada from the Old World. Since particular starter yeasts for sourdough bread and other fermented foods are formed by the environments where they originate, the sourdough starter maintained by this Canadian family has a biological heritage that makes a literal connection to the places of her ancestors.

Similarly, old family recipes also help to maintain alive the memory of men and women who labored in the kitchen to feed the family. The Pecan Pie recipe shared below by Katie Boyd is a testament to how the sweet tooth of a grandmother maintained the sacredness of the family dinner.

Katie tells us that “I come from a big southern family. For years, we had family dinner at grandma and grandpa’s house every Friday night. My grandma managed to get 11 grandkids, mostly in their teens, to enthusiastically reject time with our friends in order to have dinner with the family. I’m not saying we only came for the pie- but it definitely had its role.

Maintaining family recipes is more than simply a nostalgic habit. Rather, it helps us to maintain a sense of connection to our ancestors and to the places that shaped their lives and thus continue to shape our own as well.

Want to learn some of our staff’s family recipes?