Recreating lost family recipes

Most family recipes handed down from generation to generation relied on a tradition of daughters learning how to cook a dish from their mothers or grandmothers. It wasn’t until very recently that written recipes became the norm, and in many families writing things down just wasn’t the way these cherished foods were handed down. Some people (selfishly in my opinion) even took their family’s “secret” recipes to the grave on purpose, while other recipes were just lost to the ravages of time. If you fondly recall a dish made by your grandmother or auntie but can’t find any recipe to make it, don’t lose hope. Follow the process espoused by Michael Twitty and others who explain how to recreate lost family recipes.

Beyond the obvious steps of trying to contact relatives who might know about the recipe in question, the authors tell us how to use our sight, sound, and flavor memories to gather as much information as possible about a dish. They also make suggestions that you might not consider, such as doing historical research to answer questions like “Where would your ancestors have gotten the dish’s ingredients? What meaning would those ingredients have held for them culturally? How did migration, conflict, or changes in technology affect how those ingredients were used?”

Looking in vintage cookbooks as a source for inspiration is helpful, too. There are growing numbers of vintage books online, especially older US cookbooks (the Internet Archive has over 10,000 available). Local libraries often have community cookbooks that might feature similar recipes to the ones made in your family. The article offers additional advice. Even if you don’t exactly duplicate a recipe (it is difficult to compete with a memory after all), the process may teach you a thing or two.

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  • MarciK  on  November 21, 2020

    I found a recipe from my great great grandmother for a prune cake that I’d like to try to recreate. Prunes really aren’t my favorite, but I want to see what she would have enjoyed or served to family.

  • hillsboroks  on  November 22, 2020

    When I was growing up in Oregon my Midwestern-born mother used to make a dish she called chili but which bore little resemblance to the Texas or Southwesten chilis. After she died I went through her recipe cards, clipped recipes and notes looking for family favorites. I found most of them but not the chili recipe. Luckily I had watched her make it many times so I was able to recreate it and added that recipe to the little booklet of family recipes that I made for my brothers and sister. It made me feel great when one of my brothers called to tell me that Mom’s chili had been his favorite dish growing up and that he had just made the recipe from my booklet and said it was just like he remembered it.

  • florador  on  November 24, 2020

    I love the Reddit feed Old_Recipes! Sometimes folks who are looking for old recipes post here. But mostly folks post photos of old family recipes, or photos of pages from old cook books. Quite a lot of fun to look through! Currently there’s a post that’s getting a lot of interest — it’s a cookbook someone made long ago by clipping recipes (and other domestic matters) from the newspaper, and pasting them onto the pages of another book — thus making their own cookbook!

  • jluvs2bake  on  March 5, 2021

    I would also recommend looking for groups online that are dedicated to recipes from the area where you (or whoever made the dish you loved) lived or grew up or, if applicable, to whatever particular ethnic heritage the recipe originated. I am in a group from my hometown, and we have helped people find many recipes they thought were lost forever — or that they thought were only in their family but happened to be a wonderful memory shared by many others.

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