Sunday, November 10, 2013

Keeping Holiday Food Memories

This is the time of year when we all start thinking about feasts in New England. The weather is growing colder. Most of the planted food has been harvested from our farms (and from our backyards if we are gardeners.) All that remains to eat outside my house are the herbs, which are waiting to be chopped up and put in my turkey. This time of year I begin thinking about Aunt Louise's Sweet Potato Pie, Mom's matzoh ball soup, and our Christmas Ham or bird.

I keep a little recipe box in my kitchen. Some people have migrated their recipes online, but this is one thing that I prefer to keep on paper. Cards, stained with grease or slightly sticky with sugar crystals, get pulled from the little box each November. Generally, I don't like to cook. I make dinner each night, but rarely do I get fancy. This time of year is different. This time of year I am after the feasts or the sweet gifts in my recipe box. This time of year is a time for memories. I'm making them and keeping them.

I talk in my archives presentations about my mother's homemade pizza. She made dough from scratch every Sunday. She made homemade sauce out of garden tomatoes, froze it, then defrosted it from our large basement freezer to be used as the pizza sauce. Fresh cheese --added 4-5 hours after her whole pizza cooking process began -- would greet the three little hungry faces of her children who stared into the oven. "When will it be done Mom? We're hungry!...That smells so goooood!"

I make pancakes once in awhile. I hope my kid will remember that. Yet, I am pretty sure that the special memories I'm making with food are from the holidays. I am under no delusions that the everyday cooking around here will be remembered. I am not known for my cooking. No one is going to say, "Grandma Melissa was a great cook!" Yet, it would be nice to leave some food behind that embeds itself in my daughter's brain and makes her mouth water just from the memory.

A couple of years ago, my friend Sue and I wrote a food memories workbook to help people think about and keep family memories that our important to them. Though our work has taken us in different directions, for now, the workbook is still a valuable tool for recording food memories and keeping alive traditions for future generations. One of my favorite exercises is to create a food biography. This is a perfect thing to think about this time of year. I'm encouraging staff and students to think about their food memories with an exhibit and worksheet at the high school where I teach.

At home, for Thanksgiving, I have my favorite homemade cranberry recipe. My daughter will probably always remember that Dad prefers canned sauce and Mom will make the homemade, even if she (I) am the only one who will eat it! Aunt Louise's sweet potato pie has been a staple on my family table since I was a kid. This may be the one recipe that gets passed on forever. We have Stovetop stuffing (for her Dad and Granddad) and fresh GF stuffing for her mom and Uncle William. My husband bakes gluten free pies for all of us. We have our Turkey stuffed with vegetables. The rest of the meal may change each year. I have a nice carrot pear soup that I pull out once in awhile. Sometimes we make peas with pearl onions...but the staples will always be there --on our table and hopefully in our memories.

So how do we keep the memories alive? Besides my little recipe card box and a food memories workbook that I will pass on to my daughter, here are some other ways to embed the traditions:

  • Cookbooks - add comments to the margins as you improve recipes. Note who likes what, when you cook it and memories associated with times you have eaten eat
  • Talk it up! Bring your kids into your kitchen and talk about that fresh cranberry sauce. Every year, for awhile, I would hear, "Why are you making cranberry sauce when we have canned?" This year, my daughter said to me, "When we go shopping for cranberry sauce, don't forget that we need the two kinds."
  • Take pictures. Take pictures of your food prep work, or have someone take a picture of you preparing the food. Take photos of your table and the people at your table. Consider creating a photo essay
  • Record conversations about food at your holiday table. (I am beginning to use the Voice Library to record oral histories.)
  • Have your kids help you in the kitchen. Have them taste test and add to your menu
  • Make holiday menus. This is another good way to involve the kids!
Most of all, stay warm, enjoy your family and have a great time preparing those feasts -- especially if it is the only cooking that you will do all year.

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