Words Simone Spilka
Photos Simone Spilka & Charlotte Hellichius

In My Mother's Kitchen: Generations of Recipes

Jul 18, 2016

In the Adirondacks, a homey destination five hours from New York City by car, you wouldn't find much other than country living, ham and cheese sandwiches, gas station ice cream shops, and open property miles beyond what your legs can carry you. Last month, I traveled North for sixty never-ending acres, 11 friends, and two apple pies. Rather they were 'Oma's Famous Apple Pies,' according to Chantal, the weekend's host. Her grandparents had left the house for us 'kids' to enjoy, but made sure there were enough homemade sweet treats (in the fridge, in the freezer, hidden in random tupperware) to last us the weekend. I had no objections: the anticipation of the pie made the entire trip all the more enticing; I pictured Oma in the kitchen with her butter-battered cookbook, baking with ingredients she knew how to portion with her eyes closed after decades of feeding family and passers-by.

We all know this pie. It’s the pie of family reunions—of cousins, relatives, brothers, sisters, lovers, animals huddled around a wooden table dressed in a checkered tablecloth waiting for the oven timer to buzz. It’s the pie that feels like time stands still before the hot pan is pulled from the oven and transferred onto the oven top to cool. Typically, you eat the first large helping with quick-melting, no frills vanilla ice cream, but the second and third is taken on its own, to savor each bite. En route to our weekend getaway, I could already taste the crumble, the flakes, the warm crisp bite—how often is it that as adults we get to indulge in the delicacy that is a grandmother’s cooking?

A documented family recipe can keep us connected through flavor and tradition, giving us an understanding of where we came from and to carry with us to new apartments and first homes.

My own grandmother's pie came in the form of lox, eggs, and onions packaged buffet-style with rye bread on Sunday mornings, and as a warm cabbage soup that lit up the house with a sweet and sour fragrance during winter. She passed before I was born so I only know of her cooking through stories told by my mother. Still, I’m deeply curious about her process in the kitchen, about what I ate as a child that was inherited through her. Did she follow recipes or cook by intuition? Did she enjoy cooking for a family of six or did she find it a chore? Fortunately—as was common of women in her time—she documented these recipes with intention, and in doing so, built a bridge between generations that will exist for decades.

Modern times are different. City dwellers order pre-packaged meals from services like Blue Apron and Fresh Direct, and save recipes digitally in the form of pins, emails and images. But for the sake of preserving a legacy of all those who baked the pie (or meatloaf, brisket, matzo ball soup, what have you), it's important we never abandon the art of the hand-written recipe. Our grandmothers crafted their notes on humble pieces of white-lined paper or 6x8 index cards, tracking portions, measurements, and steps in just legible cursive. The dog-eared cookbooks marked by grease and oil stains carry stories, pleasure, and joy. "The worn pages of a cookbook have the unique ability to drill into a place where food memory mixes with love and loss," wrote Kim Severson in the New York Times. This is one of the reasons I take great pleasure in my wall of cookbooks, marking up the pages with notes and tips for preparation. When my friends come over for a weekly Sunday potluck, I ask them to hand-write their recipes, which I then save in a box. One day far from now, when my friends and I have salt-and-pepper hair and grandchildren of our own, these index cards will be of great significance. They might not be "Grandma's Best," or "Grandma's Favorite," but they will have been Grandma's when she was 25, 28, 30 years old.

While writing this article, I asked my mother to share my grandmother's handwritten recipes with me. They came by way of an email from my father: "These are old school, real deal ones. Too bad my grandma and great grandma never wrote anything down. Unbelievable knishes." It's funny what we remember about our own families. The reflection of a much-loved meal has a fascinating way of bringing us back to happy times, of transporting us to our childhood tables where we grew up laughing, crying, sharing, and maturing.

25 and armed with a handful of family recipes, I’ve never attempted to cook any of them on my own. I find there is still something sacred in having the 'secret family recipe' prepared by someone whom we love deeply. I treasure these dishes specifically because they are infused with my memories of time and place, comfort and ease, innocence and childhood, and I savor it as such until it is my turn to carry on the tradition. But the older I get, the more appreciative I am that these recipes are more than a sum of their ingredients: they are a gift, an heirloom, an inheritance baked fresh with warmth and nostalgia.