I am in the process of culminating my mother’s recipe scribbles into a collection of recipes and hopefully a book. Although it is a labour of love it is also sprinkled with fear, as I want to be true to the recipes we remember as childhood favourites as well as these dishes she may or may not have cooked. Along with that there is also the want and desire to place my own recipes alongside hers as a testament to the love of food she passed on to me. However, the burning questions niggling at the back of my brain and stopping me from really diving into this project are, “Will it taste like mammy’s”? Will it do justice to her culinary endevours?
With 6 children in our family, we all remember different things. Each of us has a stand out dish that makes us think of our childhood. And so I asked my siblings for their favourites. Gur cake (Chester cake), was first up, then there was bread and butter pudding, bacon and cabbage were another and of course, we couldn’t leave out rice pudding or rose petals and sugar. The list goes on and the process becomes more daunting with every dish. My brother, spurred on by his memories of my mother made his chosen dish of bacon ribs, cabbage water and new spuds and sent me a photo. I was transported to another time and place. A place of warmth, love and good food…my mother’s kitchen.
It begs the question. Can we ever really recreate something our mammy or granny makes? I know when I make cauliflower cheese, for example, my son always says “It’s not like Papa’s, Ah Papa makes the best dinners”. And he is right. Despite the fact when I’m in Ireland the job of making the said sauce is given to me. However, I’m convinced my dad comes in and adds more cheese or 15 drops of extra love into it when no one is looking. This is also why I never recreate anything my in-laws make as they are on another level altogether. Even if you follow the recipe to the letter it won’t be the same. Why? You can follow a Jamie Oliver video or something from a cookbook and it seems to be the same. But is it? You didn’t taste what he cooked, so how do you know? And you have no emotional connection to the dish so no other senses are involved only what you see.
I’ve resolved myself to thinking that I will not be able to recreate my mother’s recipes. Yes, I can remake them, I can transcribe them, take pictures and tell a story about them. But recreate them in the way we remember. In that, I will fail simply because I am not my mother. The setting will be different upon eating, the smell of home, our childhood home will not be infused with the smell of the food. There will be no Aga in the kitchen, no sound of kids playing on the road or the chatter of siblings around the table. I wouldn’t be eating a hot bowl of rice pudding straight in the door from school on a cold wet 80’s day. I’ll probably be at a dinner table in the Mediterranean with the sun shining. So that’s certainly going to be a different experience. Food is after all a sensory indulgence. When we eat we are having an experience, which creates a memory and a connection to that place, time and if your lucky another person. I don’t remember the food I’ve eaten in front of the TV (those moments are rare so should stand out) or food I’ve eaten alone. I remember the whole experience that enhances the taste, smell and setting of what and when I eat. We all do, even if we don’t realize it. I recently made my mum’s tea brack. Closing my eyes and mindfully eating it was as close as I got to the original eating experience.
So why bother? For a start, food is intertwined with our culture, who we are and where we are from. I’m Irish, so therefore things like bacon and cabbage, floury potatoes, soda bread, apple tarts and family roast dinners are part of my DNA. Even the way we cook in our family has so much of my mother in it, as hers did her own mother. We are all better at cooking for a crowd than for one for example. She was a genius at that. Family recipes are like a legacy. They are passed on. What we cook, how we cook them connects us to our ancestors, our roots our heritage. Modern convenience has robbed a certain amount of that. Where we live will change what foods become the new daily dishes in our homes. Therefore holding those dishes from the past with both hands is crucially important because it keeps those people and those moments alive to pass on to the next generation. Food in the past was about sustaining you, eating local, seasonal food and what you could afford not a fashion statement or trend. Recreating something does not mean it has to be the exact same. In fact, as soon as someone else makes your parents recipe they have to begin the culinary journey to have a food memory of their own. And so the banquet continues. The most important thing is not to destroy the recipe in the recreating, but to enhance it with its history, its importance to you and pass it on with care. No, it will not taste like mammy’s, but the fact that I’ve tried to make it again and engaged with my families memories so the legacy is recorded in a book or even here in cyberspace will pay homage to her culinary endeavour also known as love on a plate.