Families today are looking back to favorite dishes made by Mom or Grandma as they move forward, re-connecting to their culinary heritage by preserving beloved recipes and the unique family traditions associated with them.
This Mother’s Day weekend, Suzann Brucato of Lincroft will channel the spirit of her maternal grandmother, Dolores Fabiano, with a platter of Calabrian fresine. Traditionally cut with a length of crocheting thread so they form their characteristic pockmarked surface, the flat breads — soft on the inside, lightly crispy on the outside — signal comfort to Brucato. Their aroma greeted her like a warm embrace on weekend visits from college to her grandparents’ home in Union City, the same building where she had grown up watching her revered “nannie” prepare robust vegetable soups bursting with nutrition and fanciful Easter breads laden with symbolism. Mealtimes in that multi-generational household offered “a richness that I didn’t appreciate until now, as an adult,” said Brucato, 47. “Most of the recipes I got from her I began to make regularly when I was married.”
Head of her own business and the mother of two, Brucato has tapped those recipes, which she keeps in a folder, for creative projects outside the kitchen. As for the Table Talk quote, it was supposed to go like this: “The act of breaking bread and sharing a common taste while eating each other’s words….Talking while eating a common food at the same table is our daily fiber of life,” she wrote in a poem she titled “Table Talk.” Another trove of recipes is never far from the mind of Aviva Djiji Levy, 55, a graphic designer in Leonia. Born into an Iraqi family in Israel and raised in Iran, she plans on self-publishing the unique Iraqi-Jewish recipes collected by her mother, Sally Djiji of Fort Lee. The task is daunting, however.
“My family doesn’t have much recorded history,” said Levy. Her efforts to set down her family’s culinary background have been complicated by the need to locate sources for exotic ingredients, such as dried limes; analyze the Indian, Kurdish, Turkish, Persian and Russian influences on her family’s cuisine; transliterate Arabic names into English; and test the timeless recipes to make sure they work in a modern kitchen. Her friends in Iraqi-Jewish communities in Montreal, London and Israel keep asking her when she’ll complete her book. “I’m hoping this year,” she said. In the meantime, family gatherings offer Levy the opportunity to pass on her family’s food traditions, such as the baking of the cheese-filled crescents known as sim-boo-sak b’je-bin, to her 19-year-old son, Darryl.
“Cooking is a bright spot in our shared history. Nourishing one another and making sustenance — these are good things to pass on if you can,” noted Laura Schenone, 46, of Montclair, author of the newly released “The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family” (Norton, 2008) as well as “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances” (Norton, 2003).
With Nancy Gail Ring, 51, of West Orange, an artist and writer, Schenone has created Jellypress.com, an illustrated culinary blog that features “Antique Recipe Road Show,” which solicits questions about old recipes, and “Not To Be Forgotten,” which adapts an old recipe to contemporary life. “My hope is that it will get people interested in thinking about how food connects us from past to present,” explained Schenone. “There seem to be more people looking to the past for sustenance,” noted Ring.
A former pastry chef and author of “Walking on Walnuts” (Bantam, 1996), a culinary memoir that chronicled her experiences in Manhattan restaurants, Ring learned to make the mandelbrot, rugelach, matzo ball soup, brisket and kugel of her Eastern European ancestors from her mother and grandmothers. “I still feel like my grandmothers are in the room with me when I’m baking,” she said.
Ring cooks with her 10-year-old son, Max, whenever possible and looks for other opportunities to broaden his culinary outlook. “I’ll pick up something in the supermarket, for instance, like a Hubbard squash, and tell him that this is actually what is in a can of pumpkin puree. Or I’ll show him a quince and make him smell it and I’ll tell him what it is, even if he thinks it’s gross right now. I consider it part of his education. I don’t think you’re truly an educated person if you are ignorant about food,” she explained.
But as Schenone deftly detailed in her second book, family foodways aren’t always neatly or easily passed on. The specific technique, piece of equipment, or even ingredient needed to create a particular dish can be omitted from even a formal recipe or altered over the course of time by family circumstances. To track down her paternal great-grandmother’s Genoese ravioli recipe, Schenone consulted an array of relatives and even total strangers on both sides of the Atlantic. Mounds of dough ended up in the trash bin as she painstakingly sought to recreate the look, feel, and taste of her ancestors’ food of celebration. Now her sons, Gabriel, 12, and Simon, 7, help her make her family’s signature dish. “This is very satisfying to me because I worked so hard to bring that recipe back, but I didn’t know if they’d really care,” she admitted. “It turns out that they do care, a lot.”
Alicia Iacono, 53, chair of the social studies department at Mount Saint Mary Academy in Watchung, had a similar experience with an Irish plum pudding recipe. “My father every Christmas used to wax poetic about his mother’s plum pudding,” she said. “One year I finally said, ‘Enough with the talking. We’ve got to find out how to make this.’”
An aunt had a recipe. “What I got was this ‘box of this, jar of that’ recipe,” recalled Iacono. Using a list of ingredients from her aunt and guided by measurements for a similar recipe found in a James Beard cookbook, Iacono cobbled together a winning formula. “It passed muster with my father and his brothers and sisters, and I made it for him each Christmas until he passed away,” she said.
Along with that experience, she has passed on her paternal grandmother’s Irish soda bread recipe and a ravioli recipe from her husband’s side of the family to her son, Jamie, 12. “The older I’m getting, the more conscious I am of the need to start writing these things down,” said Iacono. “I’ve been starting to put my recipes on the computer because there were times I looked at my recipe booklet and said, ‘If anybody had to find anything, they wouldn’t know where to look.’ Now I have a ‘my recipes’ file.”
Other, more recently crafted family favorites have yet to be recorded, however, like her mother’s noodles and chopped meat comfort dish and her father’s bacon and eggs with “tea gravy,” made by deglazing meat drippings with a cup of strong tea. Pre-occupied with preserving the tastes of the past, “We often don’t think about the fact that we’re making history,” she said.
Schenone’s account of her recipe search prompted others who shared her ancestry to re-discover a long-lost treat. Robert Murray, M.D., 57, a psychiatrist in Concord, NH, who grew up on his grandparents’ farm in East Vineland, was able to recreate the Genoese ravioli of his youth last Christmas with the help of Schenone’s book. He shared the experience with his daughter and her husband. “It was very meaningful to me to make it,” he said. “I have always been the kind of person who was interested in family tradition and history.”
From his English-Irish-Scottish mother, Murray has inherited a collection of recipe cards for other family favorites, like oyster stew, pumpkin pie, and turkey stuffing. “My sister knows that I have them,” he said. As for his children, “They’re just going to have to copy them and share,” he said.