Why It’s So Hard To Recreate Your Grandma’s Chicken

The worst thing I baked was my grandmother’s banana bread. I was 20 and a pretty good baker, but not quite confident. I followed the recipe – a hand-written script with an ingredient list and a couple of sentences of instructions – but the bread came out rock hard. If I had misread his writing? Were my various ingredients his? To this day, I don’t know what I did wrong.

Whether it’s indecipherable handwriting or insufficient education, family recipes can often be difficult to recreate. Add the pressure of doing something that’s steeped in history and meaning, and even the most assured cook is bound to feel less confident. Some of them come from cookbooks, horny and stained from use; others were transmitted in the kitchen, with the hand of another family member guide; and many have been carried out in memory alone.

From cultural traditions to accounts of grief and identity, family recipes tell our stories. The first season of the My Family Recipe podcast explored these stories in greater depth, as the writers delved into their own beloved recipes. Often joined by family and friends, the conversations went beyond family anecdotes to get to the heart of what it means to bring recipes from our past to our present. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Find your bearings

When writer Jennifer Justus recreated her grandmother’s caramel pecan pie, she knew the consistency of the filling just wasn’t right. She reached out to her friend and pastry chef Rebekah Turshen, who had a quick fix on hand.

“People get a little nervous about overcooking the pudding, so often it’s undercooked. With butterscotch and toffee, and that kind of pudding, there’s so much sugar that it’s actually hard to curdle. But, if you curdle an egg pudding like that, you can always throw it in a blender and it’ll smooth out right away.”

Turshen had another suggestion for Justus, which is to compare your family recipe with other similar ones, especially one that you already know works.

“With things like flour, there can be a lot of different weights, so I try things on the average. I’m comparing against something I’ve done, that I’m comfortable with, and that I know works. And it’s a good way to just get your bearings.”

Looking for similarities in process and ingredients can give you a good indication of how a recipe works and whether or not it was successful. These comparisons are especially useful for recipes that have an ingredient list but little or no specific instructions. If you’re comfortable with recipe imprecision (“a handful of that,” and “a few spoonfuls of that”), estimate based on what makes sense, and once you hit the right amounts, be sure to put update your recipe card.

Recipe: Caramel Pecan Pie

The ingredients change

The ingredients in a recipe can change over time for a number of reasons: changing tastes and trends, access to better quality ingredients, and ingredients eliminated, but often it’s the ingredients the simplest ones that can trip you up, like salt and grease. Old recipes often call for less salt than their contemporary versions — in fact, you’ll find salt almost entirely gone from old baked goods recipes. Feel free to add others. Likewise, old recipes may lean too far in the direction of sugar. When coming in fats, such as lard, shortening and margarine, these can often be replaced with unsalted butter. However, Turshen had this to add:

“Sometimes when you try something Recreate you remember, you might actually like to keep something like margarine or shortening in because it gives you the authentic flavor of something that you remember so vividly. »

When writer and food historian Adrian Miller recreated family friend Minnie Utsey’s cornbread, substituting the shortening was unthinkable. “I think the part that really triggers people is the melted shortening, but there’s a reason you have to use the shortening,” he explained. Part of what we love about family recipes is their ability to transport us back in time: These recipes nourish our bodies, but they also support our connection to the past and guide us through the present. While it can be tempting to update old recipes with different ingredients, there’s a lot to be said for the nostalgic flavor some ingredients provide.

Editor-in-chief Coral Lee found more than just a list of ingredients in her Popo sponge cake recipe:

“My Popo is not only thankfully alive, but also a great archivist. When she has shared the recipe with me, Popo was explicitly recommending certain ingredients brands, explicitly attributing his unfailing success with these products. Can “Maybe that’s me romanticizing it all, but I can’t help but think it’s a very touching way in which she constructs and expresses her Asian-American identity.”

Recipe: Minnie Utsey’s Safe Cornbread

Recipe: Popo sponge cake

putting things together

When Joelle Zarcone lost her mother prematurely to cancer, she found herself struggling to recreate the Sunday sauce that had graced her childhood table. Zarcone combed through emails and text messages to create a list of ingredients and relied on her memory to piece together the process. It took a few tries and involving family members in taste testing, but eventually Zarcone knew it was true:

“I remember going back to my kitchen and smelling it and thinking it smelled like my house was growing, like it smelled like my mom was in there…”

Several essayists on the series note that family recipes often come with few guidelines. In some cases, the recipe was never written down at all. Giselle Krachenfels’ mother, Clariza, recalled how she was taught to make her family’s flan de leche:

“When I was younger, my mother would just tell us to stand next to her and say, ‘Look how I cook.’ And so I was watching how she made things and later on I had to kind of pilot it. It’s like you watch what’s in the pot and that’s how you learned it.

Think of the lack of information as a little nudge to connect with family members who are still there, ask questions, and learn their stories.

Recipe: Cheese Baked Ziti with Big-Batch Sauce

Recipe: Leche Flan

Accept mistakes

family can be nostalgic treats much like the phone game. The written recipe (or a family member) can assume the cook’s skill or familiarity with the ingredients. Krachenfels found that his mother initially made the same mistakes she did in recreating de leche Flan’s family.

Mistakes will happen, and chances are someone else has made the same mistake. Remembering that these mistakes are part of a common experience can bring you closer to your loved ones. For Gary Schiro, who wrote of his mother’s most frequently cooked dish after her death, it was about imagining his mother as a newlywed, learning to cook:

“I think of her as a very young woman getting married into this Italian family and trying to figure it all out. And no doubt from time to time to grab straws, and to do it wrong several times. And I can see her with the same cookbook (which I now own), trying to figure out a way forward, which she clearly did.”

Recipe: Sunday Sauce

make it your own

Recipes are formulas, but they are not set in stone. Mistakes you make while trying to duplicate a recipe can lead to a new version that brings it into the present. Schiro recreates his mother’s sauce to the letter. Meatballs, however, are another story. Embracing the access to meat his mother didn’t enjoy, Shiro made the meatballs lighter than their all-beef counterparts by incorporating turkey, veal, and pork.

Turshen has some helpful tips when combining the past with the present:

* “When I’m looking for something Recreate that I’ve had in my past or find in an old book, there are certain parts, like the pie crust that I use my own recipe – one that I’m comfortable with. And can I use the filling from the original recipe.: a balance of things where I know I’m going to have the base that I’m happy with but I added the old-fashioned main event to go with it. “

The beauty of family recipes is that they tell our stories. These stories should not only recall the past, they contain our navigations of the present and our hopes for the future. At its heart, a recipe helps us find and create those connections and, if we’re lucky, become part of a delicious meal for generations to come.