In Debra Bruno's home, it wouldn't be Christmas without retelling the story of her one-armed Italian great-grandmother and her famous ravioli recipe. And Hanukkah? Just another week in December until Sandy Weiswasser makes the crisp, diminutive latkes from the recipe her Polish grandmother bequeathed her. As for Joan Shih, the delicate pearl balls she makes for the Chinese New Year remind her of the family she left behind in Taiwan half a century ago.
For all these women, their heirloom recipes are more than just a list of ingredients and directions. They conjure up memories, laughter, history and the wistful hope that grandchildren will continue a beloved tradition.
Cooking these recipes at holiday time is also a way of bringing long-lost relatives back to life, even for just a few hours in a warm kitchen. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver describes the feeling as "inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it." She can feel them standing in the kitchen with her as she cooks their recipes, she writes in her recent book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year Of Food Life."
Great heirloom recipes also have the lure of a great story behind them, says editor Christopher Kimball. His Cook's Country magazine sponsored an heirloom recipe preservation contest this year that generated nearly 3,000 entries (the magazine receives about 500 entries for its monthly recipe contest). The entries came with intriguing tales about family members, tough times when ingredients were scarce, and regional favorites that have fallen out of favor.
Such recipes take on a special significance at the holidays. Kimball calls them part of a family's narrative. Writer Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, who learned to cook at her great-grandmother's side in Luray, Va., resists even calling them recipes. In her essay, "But Really, There Are No Recipes ..." in "Through the Kitchen Window," a compilation edited by Arlene Voski Avakian, she writes: "This is about art and love, not about technique. Some things need to be learned standing beside someone."
The story starts with Bruno's great-grandmother, a proud Southern Italian woman who had only one arm. It didn't keep her from being an excellent cook, or even from kneading and rolling out the pasta dough for her pillowy ravioli. In fact, she taught her daughter, Mary, how to knead dough one-handed, and Mary, in turn, taught each of her four sons how to knead one-handed "until one day one of the four Bruno boys realized they could use both their hands," says Debra Bruno, shaking her head and laughing.
Bruno, 50, an editor at Legal Times in Washington, grew up in Athens, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, where her grandparents had settled after the family emigrated from Italy.
"The big family meals were at Easter and Christmas," Bruno recalls. "There'd be one huge, long table where everyone sat, and my grandmother would serve this incredibly heavy meal." First would be cheese ravioli with homemade red sauce, followed by braciola (beef rolled around a filling), baked eggplant, meatballs, sausage and peppers, and cavatelli. "And when it was over, she'd start cooking for the next holiday."
Bruno's great-grandmother rolled out the pasta dough by hand, using a long wooden rolling pin and laboriously sealing the edges of each ravioli square with the tines of a fork.
In the early days, says Bruno, her grandmother also used a rolling pin, but she eventually switched to a hand-cranked Atlas pasta machine.
Her grandmother never wrote down her recipes, says Bruno, and she wasn't big on teaching her family how to make the dishes. "She was all about serving us. I think she worried that if someone else knew how to do it, what would she do?"
But her sons, including Bruno's father, got interested in cooking. Her uncle Pasquale "Pat" Bruno Jr. is the author of several Italian cookbooks and is the restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Once Bruno was grown, she began trying to duplicate her grandmother's recipes. Now married and the mother of two, she and her siblings gather every Christmas for a big Italian meal. Using a pasta machine just like her grandmother's, she makes bags and bags of ravioli, freezing them in preparation for the holiday.
Bruno follows the family recipe from her uncle's 1982 cookbook, "Pasta Tecnica," and everyone agrees that the ravioli taste like her grandmother's. But they're still working on some of the other dishes. "Every year someone tries to make her braciola. And it's good, but we all agree it's not Nana's."
More than 50 years after leaving Taiwan, it's the chopping Shih remembers. The many cleavers, rat-a-tatting on the cutting blocks, as meat and vegetables were being prepared for the huge Chinese New Year's banquet her family was planning. The noise, Shih says, would keep the children awake at night.
Shih was raised in Rukuan, the ancient capital of Taiwan during the Ch'ing Dynasty, where her parents had an imposing home, including a large gourmet kitchen with a custom-built brick oven and four huge woks. For the all-important New Year's celebration, her family would hire a chef and a team of helpers to prepare the food. Shih, fascinated, would watch as they carved vegetables and fruits into elaborate flowers and animals. "The chef's team would call me 'little doll' and give me samples to taste," she remembers.
When she got a little older, she and her mother would together prepare the pearl balls (minced pork meatballs rolled in glutinous rice and steamed) that were a favorite dish at New Year's.
At 18, she was awarded a full scholarship to study chemistry at what is now the University of Saint Mary near Kansas City, Kansas. She arrived in the late 1950s, alone and speaking very little English. If she felt homesick, she won't admit it. Even now, nearing 70, she is an indomitable woman with steely resolve. Her father, a physician, wanted her to get an education and have a successful career. He said go, and she went. "Everything I am today, I owe to my father," she says.
Hired as an analytical chemist at the National Institutes of Health, she married and raised two daughters. She maintained her connection to her homeland by cooking the dishes that reminded her of her family and heritage.
For 33 years, Shih, of suburban Silver Spring, Md., has taught Chinese cooking classes to everyone from beginners to experienced chefs. Six years ago, she compiled her recipes into a cookbook, "The Art of the Chinese Cookery."
Her students have become like extended family, particularly since her husband passed away several years ago. At Chinese New Year's, she takes a large group to a local Chinese restaurant for a special banquet. In the classroom, she teaches them to make the pearl balls she used to make with her mother. The little ground pork balls are rolled in sweet, or glutinous, rice before steaming to give them a pearly sheen. "No, too big. Too big," she says, watching one student roll Italian meatball-size portions instead of the one-inch balls that Shih wants. After the balls are steamed, she demonstrates how to garnish each meatball with a tiny square of carrot and a tiny leaf of cilantro.
Shih has taught the recipe to her daughters and also plans to teach her four grandchildren. "They are my joy," she says. "Of course I will teach them."
"When my grandmother died," says Weiswasser, "she didn't leave me jewelry. She left me something better &
the latke recipe she would make for the whole family every Hanukkah." Weiswasser is a retired sixth-grade teacher, an energetic grandmother of four who won't give her age. "I'm collecting Social Security, that's all I'll say," she says, laughing.
She was methodically grating 20 pounds of potatoes in her Washington kitchen. She was expecting 80 people &
friends and family &
for dinner that night, and she figured she would fry about 200 of the small potato pancakes by the time the evening was over. Already in the refrigerator was the rest of the meal: curried turkey salad with cranberries and pecans, ratatouille, sweetened carrots with onions, French green beans, fresh fruit, spiced cider and two desserts. All from scratch.
She brought over a photo of her grandmother, Sadie Goldwater Schrut: a short woman wearing a blue dress, a sparkly pin, large eyeglasses and a serene smile. "She was a queen among women," says Weiswasser. "There were seven grandchildren, and we all secretly believed we were her favorite."
Weiswasser grew up in Detroit and went to the University of Michigan before moving to Washington with her husband at 27. She credits her cooking abilities to her grandmother and Julia Child, whom she watched on TV. "My mother was a terrible cook. She never made latkes." Weiswasser acknowledges that her own daughter rarely cooks, but she's been teaching her two older granddaughters. "My theory is, cooking skips a generation," she says.
The latkes that Grandma Sadie made every Hanukkah were small, oval pillows &
"crisp on the outside and white on the inside." Weiswasser concedes that she never actually watched her grandmother grate the potatoes or mix the ingredients. "We'd just come over, and there she'd be in her flowered apron, in her tiny kitchen, and latkes would be coming out of the fryer, hot and ready to eat."
But when Weiswasser was ready to leave for college, she suddenly realized her grandmother wouldn't be around forever. "So I took a bus to her house and watched her cook."
Five years later, as a newlywed, Weiswasser made her first batch of the potato pancakes. Since then, she has written down the recipe for family members and, remembering how she learned by watching Child, she has even videotaped herself preparing them. She hopes that her granddaughters will continue the tradition.
"Who knows?" she asks, with self-deprecating humor. "Maybe when I'm dead, they'll remember I made a video and want to make their grandmother's latkes."