31 December 2023

The Family Recipe

Just last night, my wife passed on a cookbook compiled by her grandmother to OUR grandchildren. Grandma may be gone, but her recipes live.

From The European Conservative

By Shawn Phillip Cooper

The family recipe book is a vital part of the conservative cultural enterprise.

In the West, Christmas has long been an occasion for families to gather together for communal meals. Although catered dinners for these festive gatherings are more common now than in the past, most families still prepare the meals themselves using family recipes that have been a staple of seasonal merrymaking for decades, if not generations. These efforts rely, in part, upon a conservative attitude towards cooking itself—an attitude that cuts across political divides in order to elevate and preserve happy memories, along with the culture of states, regions, and individual families. It is right to preserve and celebrate these culinary traditions, which exist at the centre of national, family, and religious practices. They are a memory that can be made real and in which new generations can participate time and again.

This is not to suggest that the cultural cookbooks of families or nations should be preserved in a static, unchanging state. All recipes were once new. Dishes fall out of favour whilst others are elevated to new prominence, and this is generally a good thing. Thankfully, the Victorian toast sandwich and the 1950s prawn aspic have been consigned to the past. But it is right that dishes of national significance should endure, given that they have gained their cultural position largely through their suitability to regional agriculture and their mass appeal: Britain’s fish and chips suit its geographic position as an island, just as the American hamburger is appropriate to its vast grazing area for herds of cattle. Importantly, both are delicious.

Family recipes, too, may be practical in their origins before they become a part of the culture of the family and an object of revered memory. Gatherings with my maternal family invariably featured ‘cheesecake’ made from a family recipe that was quite easy to prepare whilst being notionally (if only notionally) similar to the sort of cheesecake that would be sold in a bakery. In this era of advanced cookware, gadgets of all descriptions, internet how-to videos, and—more significantly—inexpensive cheesecakes of very high quality in the local supermarket, there seems to be little reason for the modest outlay of time involved in making a delicious, albeit ersatz, cheesecake. Nevertheless, it would hardly feel like a real family gathering without it.

Such dishes summon to mind the memories of past gatherings, connecting the present with the past in a real and physical way. To enjoy today’s cheesecake made with yesterday’s recipe is to re-enter the past. My grandmother long ago went to her eternal reward, but when I see and taste our family desserts, it is as if she is still very much present. Something similar happens when we listen to a recording of the great singers or musicians of years gone by—of Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, and Billie Holiday. But with the family recipe, the connexion is closer and the memories more significant. To preserve such recipes in the face of technological innovations and the rise of Uber Eats (et al.) is a conservative enterprise, one that esteems values far more significant than mere calculations of cost in terms of time and money spent. It might be faster and cheaper to have the desserts catered or bought from the supermarket, but no family memory is preserved in that way.

In my experience, most families have at least one (and often many) recipe for pies. This might seem peculiar because reason suggests that there can be only so many ways to bake an apple pie. The ingredients are, after all, rather limited in scope. But any true pie enthusiast knows that this is not so. I have certainly eaten well over a hundred different kinds of apple pie, all of which have differed significantly, but grandmother’s apple pie was a particular favourite such that, in the heedlessness of youth, I occasionally ate more than my fair share. I have never yet tasted another pie like it. Thus, the family recipe for pie is a way of summoning up not just the memory of apple pie but a very specific memory of a unique dish and of the person who made it.

When my sons began asking about Thanksgiving desserts and I mentioned my grandmother’s baking expertise, I was briefly saddened by the fact that they would never be able to taste one of her memorable apple pies. But then I realised my error, for, of course, they can taste my grandmother’s pies. The family has her recipe, and my mother long ago taught me how to bake them. I have done so on many occasions! But only now that I have children of my own have I really had cause to think about how that baking process is more than a mechanical act. By baking one of my grandmother’s pies, my sons can have the culinary experiences that I had when I was a boy; they, in turn, can learn to bake them as well, passing the recipe on to their own children, along with memories that trace back the chain of family memory.

The philosophical topic of conservatism is often occupied with political considerations—of conserving certain political principles in order to ensure the survival of the culture and civil practices of a nation and its regions. But conservatism must also be a cultural attitude that involves preserving what is best and most meaningful from the past, along with providing the conditions in which the traditional family—the fundamental unit of society—can flourish. Understood thus, the family recipe book is a vital part of the conservative cultural enterprise, being one that is sufficiently abstracted from political principles so that it can be a point of common cause regardless of one’s party affiliation. Perhaps, then, one small step on the road to healing our fractured society is to celebrate the unique expressions of family tradition found in that most unlikely of places: the recipe box.

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