The Lost Art of the Family Recipe
If I asked five friends from completely different social circles and walks of life to make me a batch of chocolate chip cookies, all five batches would probably come out the same. And I don't mean the same as in "oh they're all great yay cookies", I mean exactly the same, down to each little measurement. That's how the world of food works now: we pull up Google and click on the first five-star recipe for what we want to make. Popularity begets popularity, and those five clicks compel Google to share the same old recipe to the next five users as well. Granted, the comments thread reveals a few clever variations amidst a few thousand "It was good" comments or "I hated it!" from the argumentative few.
"[Our] five clicks compel Google to share the same old recipe to the next five users as well."
To be fair, the Internet is a great resource for foodies and amateur cooks to find dishes to try and learn the basic cooking skills required for a good time in the kitchen. But looking back at my childhood, I had food-lovers in both branches of my family tree whose minds I wish I were able to tap into now. A generic potato au-gratin dish is fine and dandy in a pinch, but they're nothing compared to my maternal grandmother's "party potatoes" made for every big party and potluck in her day.
So I've salvaged what food-knowledge I can from my father's drug-scrambled brain and collection of cookbooks thus far, and always assumed I'd eventually take on the family recipes from his side and my mom's side of the family. But last year, my grandmother had a slip-and-fall injury and some illness that lead to her no longer cooking, and it became clear to me that the time to do that was growing shorter and shorter. Over the 2012 holiday season, grandma asked if there was anything from her house I would like. My response? "The family recipes."
Despite my rant about technology being the killer of food diversity, it does have its advantages. 20 years ago, nobody could';ve imagined using a phone to photograph recipe cards, save them to a computer somewhere, and be able to search for recipes with a few clicks on a keyboard - yet that's exactly what I was able to do. More than that, the visit with my grandma was an opportunity to get the good stuff; there's some knowledge that never makes it onto the card. For instance, the fruit pizza dessert recipe my grandmother laid claim to and featured in a Catholic church cookbook put out by her diocese was based off of my mom's recipe, by way of a coworker back when she worked in janitorial services at a local hospital. Or in the case of my father, less trivial and more useful information: his red beans and rice recipe is similar to the one in his favorite cookbook, but he wrote new amounts next to the ingredient list - and substituted smoked sausage, which isn't mentioned in his marginal notes.
This bit of pensive thought on my part was sparked by a collection of photography by artist Gabriele Galimberti called Delicatessen with love. Gabriele has done a great service by collecting and documenting these grandmothers and their family dishes. But in a world where chain restaurants rule and one distinct recipe can dominate on a search engine, what will happen to all of the family recipes when grandkids are too busy to cook, or too lazy to learn or collect those storied dishes to keep them living on for another generation? I've often thought about a project similar to Gabriele's photography: to put a call out on social networks looking for those legendary family recipes, to document, preserve, and cherish them, and to keep the spirit of love and food alive.
So I'm doing it, starting with my own family. Next time your party requires potatoes, please PLEASE get ahold of me. The cheesy potatoes on a big recipe site come with a five-star rating, but when you make the same thing for the millionth time, where is the love? It isn't in a search engine. It's damn sure not in the comments section. It's in the party potatoes, passed down from grandma, and made by Dave.