Lisa Goldberg still experiences regret when she thinks about recipes from her aunt she wasn’t able to record. “My aunt was the best cook … [but] I only got a handful of recipes from her,” she says.
Goldberg, the Sydney-based founding member of the Monday Morning Cooking Club, a not-for-profit dedicated to curating and documenting recipes from Jewish kitchens across Australia and the world, doesn’t want her children to have the same “recipe regret”: the particular kind of sadness you feel when you’ve lost your chance to record a recipe and can’t get it back.
If some of your family recipes remain unwritten or are scribbled on scraps of paper, here are some ways to record, revive and preserve them to avoid recipe regret for yourself, and future generations.
Before recording your family recipes, write a list of the people whose recipes you’d like to document and the specific dishes you’d like to capture.
Next, schedule a regular time to capture those recipes, either in person or via video call. This is how writer and author Jaclyn Crupi recorded her Nonna’s recipes, which she featured in the book Nonna Knows Best.
“I would go around to my Nonna’s house every Sunday and I would cook with her,” says Crupi. She wrote her Nonna’s recipes down and drew pictures to capture the details of techniques like kneading.
For the Australian-Indonesian-Chinese chef and food writer Lara Lee, the discovery of her deceased grandmother’s handwritten recipe books in Indonesia inspired her first cookbook, Coconut and Sambal. To write it, she spent a total of six months in Indonesia. Lee learned to cook her grandmother’s recipes not only from her cookbooks, but together with help from her aunties and great-aunties. They would go through her grandmother’s recipe books and Lee would select a recipe she wanted to learn.
“They’d look at what she had written, and they would tell me … how they had learned it,” says Lee.
You have to perfect a recipe by making it on your own. When testing recipes, Goldberg warns against relying on someone’s handwritten notes alone. She recounts the story of a recipe she’d been sent. After several attempts at making it, it just wouldn’t work. When she showed the person what they’d written, they were able to clarify things. “I didn’t mean a cup of flour. No, I meant half a cup of almond milk.”
If you can’t go back to the person who taught you the recipe, then Goldberg recommends consulting a cook or chef. If there was a recipe she couldn’t recreate, say a pastry for example, Goldberg says she would ask an expert. “I’d go to the guy who owns Marta … a beautiful Italian bakery. I’d go see him, I’d tell him the problem and say ‘Can you help me?’” Revisiting the recipe with someone else will help you recover missed steps until you get it right.
If your family recipes are lost, they may not be gone for good. Crupi suggests reviving lost recipes through cookbooks or even a cooking class. By reading about, tasting and making the cuisine from your heritage, you can reawaken the recipes in your memory.
Another way is noting down everything you can remember about the dish. Think about the flavours, smells or tastes, details like what the dish looked like and what it was called. Even if you don’t have surviving family, with this information you can search online, or reach out to people through Facebook groups who may help you identify the dish.
Immersing yourself in the food of your culture can also reconnect you to your past.
Goldberg remembers her sister-in-law’s mother, Elizabeth. “She used to make these amazing poppy seed strudels and walnuts strudels … really exceptional and unique,” says Goldberg.
Goldberg recorded the recipe with Elizabeth when she was still alive, also learning the story behind it. Elizabeth told Goldberg how she had survived the Holocaust and that her parents had been killed in the camps. When she came to Australia in the 1950s, it was with nothing. “No money, no clothes … no recipes,” says Goldberg.
One afternoon in Sydney at a friend’s house, Elizabeth was served a strudel that reminded her of her mother’s. She hadn’t had it for years and thought it was lost. Through that chance tasting she was given the recipe, and from that she was able to recreate her mother’s version.
Heirloom cookbooks are cookbooks with time-honoured family recipes that have been passed down across generations. If your family is lucky enough to have one, but fear damaging or losing your only copy, Alice Cannon, a paper conservator and the president of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM), suggests taking photographs of each page.
If the original needs repair, then you could locate a private practice conservator through the AICCM’s searchable database. When it comes to storage, Cannon recommends using a snug box away from light and dust.
Cannon suggests using a print-on-demand photobook service (there are several available online to make a new “kitchen copy”. Cooking with a family recipe regularly will preserve the heirloom, and the memories.