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Personal Heirloom Cookbook

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heirloom cookbook

Food, we know, has magical properties. So, too, do the stories behind their recipes. They resurrect those who are gone. They let you travel through time. They become mythology.

As a personal historian, I interview people and write their life stories into heirloom books. Usually it is the children or grandchildren who commission me, seeking to preserve their family legacy. Some of my subjects are world-famous. Some are ordinary folk. No matter, the wisdom and intimacy I encounter are astounding. I hear stories of great work, love affairs, lifetimes that seem to have passed in a blink. Especially, as people chronicle their lives, I am struck by the centrality of food and recipes - and the tales behind them. Too often, even when we manage to scribble down the recipes, we leave the stories behind.

There is the pie recipe – handed down from a mother-in-law who when she shared her recipe, always left out one key ingredient so it could never be replicated in its full glory. Except this one time.

There is the kugel – that was perfected over the years by a community, first with this auntie’s change, then with that friend’s addition. In the end, the recipe belongs to no one in particular. It was the collective Stone Soup.

Then there is the brisket that his father taught his mother to make with an alarming amount of onions. It was long ago when his parents were still married. And though he was too young to have any memory of that flicker in time when they were one whole family together, the recipe itself somehow lets it exist again for just a moment.

What are your beloved recipes with stories behind them?

One of my own favorite recipes is my father’s lasagna, chunky with zucchini and roasted garlic. He learned it from his mother who used to make all kinds of pasta because the neighborhood where they lived in Cleveland was full of Italians. It was a time when homes spilled into each other. Great-Grandma lived on the second floor of the house, and someone named Uncle Porky - who may or may not have actually been an uncle - lived on the third floor. People were always stopping by unexpectedly, sometimes sleeping over, so she made food in spectacular quantities, great pots of spaghetti and sheet pans of this lasagna. I never met Grandma myself, but this lasagna is always the way I imagine her generosity.