Heir to the home

Do we still care about the handed down family heirloom recipe in today’s saturated food culture?

The notion of the heirloom recipe  one passed down through generations – is one of romance and whimsy, particularly when considered in the context of today’s cook-alongs with TV chefs and high profile authors. But there’s something to be said for a handwritten or clipped recipe sketched with notes, amendments and splatters, especially if it’s a much-loved, often used recipe that you have inherited.

A family recipe can hold so much emotion and represent something unique. They can be a reminder of simpler times or the story of someone you never knew. They take pride of place in many a cook’s kitchen, ranging from recipes torn from 80s magazines saved in binders, to entire books collated and bound by the family.

The prevalence and availability of global recipes, techniques and foods on a theme could stand to reason that this fairly emotive tradition isn’t essential. But Food Writer and Author Catherine Phipps thinks we haven’t given up on the idea of heirloom recipes just yet: “People would have us believe that we have transferred our reliance from family recipes to cookbooks and cookery shows. I think this is true in a way – a lot of people are unable to cook and so aren’t teaching their children. But I think that there’s plenty of people who still do – otherwise programmes like the Hairy Bikers: Mums Knows Best, for example, wouldn’t work.”

She recalls her own mum’s clippings and notations: “I laboriously copied out some of her irreplaceable clippings (Woman and Home editions from the early 1980s and Farmhouse Fayre featured a lot at one point).” But aside from improved-on magazine recipes, Catherine’s mum also passed on her own kitchen secrets. “There are a million and one variations on some of the recipes my mother taught me,” she says, “but I remember her version of fish pie, steak and kidney pudding and a particular rabbit dish with saffron and cream. I know to add smoked oysters or mussels to the pudding and cheese and ouzo to the fish pie, and can visualise her break from the norm when instead of mashed potato she made lots of puff pastry for the fish pie instead.”

Aside from being a great keepsake or a window to a history of cooking, there’s a significant social aspect to the heirloom recipe that can reinforce our family ties. Kamena Henshaw, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of East Anglia, has found through her research into families and their meals that it’s all to do with identity.

“My research has found that childhood experiences of cooking and meals, including cooking and eating handed down family recipes, provide individuals with a strong sense of family identity – a shared sense of belonging to a family group.

“There’s an indication that preparing and cooking food is a vehicle through which individuals can convey love and affection to others, so cooking and preparing favourite family recipes enhances this sense of love and connectedness,” she says.

Catherine’s experiences align with this theory, adding that multiculturalism and diversity also reinforces our want for teaching and learning, creating a magpie effect for home cuisine. “My Pakistani mother-in-law is teaching me her entire repertoire and gets her sister to provide me with other recipes. I have a Brazilian sister-in-law, friends from the West Indies, Eastern Europe, India – all of whom had recipes passed to them from mothers, aunts and grandmothers and who pass them on to me (and I hope to their children too).

“Incidentally, to many of them, the idea of cooking from a book is almost an alien concept, especially in countries where there is little divergence from national traditional food. I asked an Italian friend once about cookery books and she looked a bit blank, then produced a notebook full of handwritten recipes. ‘Everything I need is in here’ she said, ‘and this is just in case I forget.’”

Passed down notations, measurements, ingredients and improvements are not just recipes, but hard copy glimpses into a family history. How many dinners and occasions were enjoyed around this food? But more than this, if you were ever lucky enough to be taken through these maternal menus, it can mean more still. And as Kamena points out: “Sometimes it is not simply the recipe that is of key importance – for many individuals it is the memory that is most pertinent for creating a sense of belonging and affect, of cooking alongside grandma, and the social interaction of that experience.”

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