Do you have a favorite family recipe? Have you ever noticed how that recipe is documented? Was it orally passed down or written down? Recently, I’ve been reading a book titled Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. This book is inspiring in countless ways including but not limited to the idea of family, community, and identity.
The author proclaims herself a “folklorist trained in an appreciation of aesthetic forms” (pg. 5) and uses this skill to find, collect, and analyze cookbooks. Not just any cookbooks, but ones that might be centuries old. And not just to analyze them but “to consider them worthy objects of serious textual analysis” (pg. 5). Read “textual analysis” as discourse analysis and I find a worthy subject for this blog. Here, I’m not necessarily interested in the role women play in recipe writing and collecting but more in heirloom recipes and how they’re passed on and transformed.
Historically, paper was hard to come by and often expensive. Even if people, women in particular, could obtain paper they had to be literate in order to record recipes. Slaves, for example, often passed down recipes orally due to the fact that many slaves were not afforded advancement in literacy skills. Today, many of us are literate and have access to paper but we still utilize the oral tradition to communicate recipes.
Years ago I asked my mom about a certain recipe for a soup we had growing up. I learned it was my great-grandmother who taught the recipe to my mother who then taught it to me. I wrote down every step as my mom and I cooked the soup together. Towards the end she told me “that’s probably the first time that recipe’s been written down.”
Notes of how a recipe is transformed are often documented once a recipe is written out. I’m unsure if Uncle Albert wrote the entire strudel recipe himself but you can see where he made notes and started making the recipe truly his own. I especially like ½ cup raisins optional ½ cup chopped nuts not optional. Theophano writes in her book that people “began to experiment with their formulas, altering some proportions, deleting ingredients, and frequently commenting on their contributions as if it were an ongoing conversation among friends” (pg. 12). I like the thought that written text, especially recipes that seem so stable, are being transformed and interpreted “among friends” through time and place.
My point is this: Think about your favorite family recipes and where they came from. How have they been passed on to you? How, if at all, have they changed over time? Recipes are a snapshot of a particular time, place, culture, and identity of their author. Recipes and cookbooks deserve to be considered valuable texts and analyzed as such even if analysis is just a personal reflection kept to oneself.