“Mom’s potato salad is the best. Brandy’s is close.”
That remark, while not the highest compliment my cooking has earned, remains for me the most memorable. Spoken by my sister at her bridal shower, she validated a generational link being forged and affirmed for me that one line of our family’s story, the part to do with potato salad, is being told right. Or almost, anyway.
Ancestry.com has an estimated 2.7 million paying subscribers, and Familysearch.org has over one million registered users. Genealogy is estimated to be one of the top two most popular hobbies in the United States. For all those amateur researchers in the United States and other largely patronymic cultures, a recurrent difficulty lies in discovering the maiden names of our grandmothers. They slipped into marriages at age twenty or so, sometimes leaving scarce evidence of the families they hailed from. We researchers come along a century or two later, interested in the facts the discipline suggests we should be and frustrated by the obvious, that women did not pass on their names.
However, in many cases, they did pass on their recipes.
In doing so, women encode in our family’s narratives a sense of home more complex than DNA. Genes follow bloodlines, but food brings us to places of gratitude, comfort and safety. Food ties us to family, churches, friends, culture. Recipes move fluidly across marriages and sometimes survive divorces and death. The first time I made pot roast in gravy for my husband, he came racing up the stairs after work with a big goofy smile and tears in his eyes. “It smells like home!”
“Good!” I said. “You are home!”
“No,” he explained. “Like Mom and Dad’s.”
A happy accident. My chance is gone to ask his mother to teach me to make her Chinese fried rice, pork chops with sauerkraut, or chicken and dumplings. For my husband, “home” has locked doors that I cannot open.
What we call our sense of taste is actually 75% smell, and it’s well-known that scent and memory intertwine. The aromas of family recipes evoke not the memories of flavor and texture of eating so much as the place and the people associated with them. For the rest of my life, buttered noodles will transport me to Gramma’s orange, white and brown kitchen, at a table that’s no longer there, with a fistful of Yahtzee dice and her reminding me that we don’t play while we eat, nonetheless allowing me to take my turn.
For ancient Israel and modern Jewish people, dietary laws set them apart from other peoples–an outward expression of holiness, which itself means being set apart in sacredness. And after Christ initiated a new covenant for all peoples, it was Peter’s dream of being commanded to eat of animals considered unclean that signaled to him, “in every nation the man who fears [God] and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:35).
It is little wonder then that food preparation has long been one of the chief duties of homemakers. Food’s power to establish community and identity, as well as to welcome, comfort, restore and rejoice make it a valuable multi-tool for the manager of the home, responsible for fostering an environment of safety and belonging, nourishment and connection.
Traditionally, that manager has been a woman.
Recipes are among the strands of the DNA of a family narrative. They do not complete the story by themselves, but neither is the story complete without them. When memory becomes embedded in food, those recipes increase in value, like treasure maps of the heart and mind. Perhaps this accounts for the habit of some cooks to guard their recipes, that the treasure chest would not be accessed too often, or by just anyone. To my way of seeing things, though, the treasures worth having are those that increase the more they’re shared.
All of which leads back to the question of the day: whose potato salad am I really making?
I think I’ll go call my mother and ask her.