From My Mother’s Hands
By Lindsay Petricca and Alice Ly
For college students, learning how to cook is a stepping stone to becoming self-sufficient. With help from their families, cooking family recipes fulfills feelings of homesickness, nostalgia, and provides a strong connection to their roots as they continue to get older. Traditions ultimately come down to whether or not they practice them, how, and for what purpose. For those who come from different cultural backgrounds, food also serves as a way for people to connect to their roots.
The New School has the second highest percentage of international students in the United States, with students coming from from the 50 states and and 116 foreign countries., according to the University’s quick facts” page.
To see how some carry on their heritage, we spoke to a handful of students about their favorite family recipes.
As Michelle Uzomba, a photographer who studied at Parsons, was cooking dinner for herself, she added far too much tomato paste. The 21-year-old was in the process of cooking a rice and stew recipe passed down from her grandmother. Messing up a recipe doesn’t come as a surprise for a fresh college student who is learning how to live on their own; after living off of bagels and Easy Mac, a college student’s nostalgia for a home-cooked, satisfying meal becomes a hankering craving.
Rice and stew was a dish served for dinner every night before she left for college and Uzomba didn’t realize its significance until she lived alone. Cooking this dish acted as a solution to her homesickness, “It wasn’t until I moved into the dorms that I was like, “Damn, I missed it.”
Family keepsakes are usually objects like, jewelry, furniture, clothing or photographs. Food, however, has the ability to trigger all five of our senses, evoking memories of our childhood spent with family. By cooking family recipes, people are able to re-live feelings of satisfaction or comfort. However, though food can trigger all five senses, the sense of smell is the most reactive in correlation with memories.
According to John S. Allen, author of The Omnivorous Mind, declarative memories are housed in the hippocampus, a system located in the brain's medial temporal lobe. The hippocampus is in charge of the storage of long term memory including past experiences, declarative memory, such as recalling past experiences, and is directly linked to our digestive system.
A major example of this is Marcel Proust’s, “Remembrance of Things Past”. He writes, “I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body…” In this he describes the intense, immersive feeling of experiencing a memory in connection to food and eventually goes on to describe the memory, he later says, “The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…” acknowledging that the smell and taste jogged his childhood memory of eating the madeleine cake.
Proust’s description of his vivid memories linked to smell is something we’ve all experienced. This is because, according to Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, M.D., the sense of smell is unique to the other senses. Each time we inhale, odor molecules enter our nostrils and reach the limbic, or emotional, lobe of the brain almost instantly. In his book “What Flavor Is Your Personality?” Hirsch writes, "No other sensory receptors or processors have their home in the limbic center of the brain. The sense of smell stands alone as a direct link to the emotional responses and emotional life."
The Uzomba’s stew recipe dates back nearly fifty years when her grandmother learned to cook it as a teenager. Traditionally, rice and stew is commonly cooked with goat meat. The dish is typically served in her household for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She opts for chicken on any regular day because, to her, using goat meat seems more difficult. “You just have to find it in African markets,” explained Michelle. For the stew’s seasoning she opts for a store bought seasoning, Knorr Stock Cubes, “but the Nigerian seasoning is so much better,” she said.
“This is the first time I’ve taught anyone how to cook this,” Makaela says as she gently rubs a whole chicken sitting in her kitchen sink, “You’ve got to salt the chicken, it gives it more flavor. Don’t be afraid of using too much salt, that’s okay.” She gently places the raw chicken into a pot of water, lights the stove, and waits for the water to boil.
Makaela Duran-Crelin, 21, was preparing her family recipe of matzo ball soup in her Brooklyn apartment. At the time, Passover was coming up. However, it landed on a Monday, and due to her class schedule she was not able to make it home to Connecticut to join her family for the holiday this year.
“This is what I’m doing for Passover this year since I can’t go home,” her gaze and voice lowered as she begins to chop carrots and celery.
Makaela’s family recipe for matzo ball soup has been passed down from generation to generation for at least five years. “The soup is what the women in the family make” said Duran-Crelin. Her family cooking traditions take place during family holidays where certain recipes and tasks are assigned to each of the different family members. She recalls, “The men usually make brisket. The women always make the soup.” The student and dancer made the recipe on her own for the first time around the age of 10 and recalls, “I always just learned how to cook by watching. This recipe means a lot to me because it connects with the women in my family.”
Matzo is originated from Passover and the Jewish people escaping slavery from Egypt.” explained Makaela, “It’s made with flour and water, and no yeast because they didn’t have time to cook bread because they were on the run,” The bread would get rehydrated for consumption, “it’s like bringing life back to struggle.”
While many families have homemade cookbooks, Joshua Laclé, 20, is lucky enough to have had a grandmother who thoughtfully produced and published a multicultural cookbook, alongside her daughter and daughter in law. The book combines family recipes ranging from Caribbean food, Latin American food, and Indonesian food reflecting the cross cultural influences of Aruba.
“I come from a place of a lot of crossing of different cultures so there’s so many different flavors that, I think, speak to a lot of the history of the past few centuries.” Not only is it the location of Aruba that makes the cooking techniques so diverse, but also the climate.” Lacle’s mother is from Panama, an island that consists of a rainforest climate while Aruba is very dry. Agriculturally, there are different food sources that grow in the two places.
Though the Laclé family has a whole cookbook of family recipes, one recipe in particular is special because it’s a revered family secret. In reference to an oyster soup that is extremely popular at family gatherings, Laclé said, “last year [Christmas] my mom was like, ‘in case anything happens, I’m gonna pass this down to you and it’s a secret and you can’t tell anyone.’”
Similar to Makaela’s connection to cooking with the women in her family, Laclé also feels that cooking definitely brings up gender stereotypes in the kitchen. The connotations are different from the stereotypical, idea of women in the kitchen. Laclé said, “...Growing up it was always women running the kitchen in the family, thus they ran the whole house.” Often times, he felt he did not belong in their space, “it was always interesting being in the space with them and being part of those conversations even though I didn’t always feel like I was supposed to be… it always felt a little wrong.” Being in the presence of the women of his family was a positive and defining moment for Laclé because it developed his understanding of community and cooking knowledge.
“We love having our pure women time in the kitchen.” said Mia Suissa, 19, a mixed media artist.[age], [occupation]. “Usually 99.9% of the time it’s the women that are cooking and preparing the table and all the food. The men are usually upstairs watching TV, reading books… we hope,” she laughs. The aroma of harira took over the kitchen in her dorm as she explained the rich heritage of the traditional Moroccan dish. The dish was passed down to Suissa from her grandmother, who has been cooking the recipe ever since Suissa can remember. The soup is very special, as it is typically only served once a year. Her first memory of the dish dates back to her childhood, “Most definitely eating it with my hands, and the aromas are so strong, sweet and rich,” added Suissa, “It just tastes so ancient and watching my grandmother cook it, because she's got such ancient hands. She's been cooking this her whole life and her mom and her grandma and further back a few hundred years.”
A key ingredients for the soup is turmeric, a root and spice used in various Moroccan dishes. As taught by her grandmother, it is also a healing spice that would stop bleeding, “she would actually put turmeric for me and it would immediately stop it and relieve the pain.”
“I feel like it's in my blood though so it's kind of happening naturally.” As a sustainability advocate, Suissa removed the chicken and eggs from the recipe, as she prefers to source her food from markets where it has been confirmed that there was no harm to the animal in the making. She said, “I hope they're treating our environment with proper care and respect but the reason why I chose chicken stock and egg noodles is because I'm not an extremist.” Her grandmother’s full recipe is shared in a blog post in Jewish Journal.
The decision to go public or private with a recipe bonds a family. Some families produced cookbooks, others create a business, some post on a blog; however, some recipes are kept secret. “It allows you to feel as though your family helps shape your identity, and allows you to understand yourself a little more,” said Reuben Wilson’s, 20, who has multiple secret recipes that are to be passed down from his mother and grandmother. Wilson’s grandmother had recipes such as barbecue chicken and her infamous pound cake, while his mother makes a loaded cheese dip and trifle. He refused to comment on what is in them.
“it makes a stronger bond because there’s something that roots you to your family and food is important,” added Wilson, “there may be cultural significance to a recipe too.”
The most interesting part about these secret recipes is that they have all been experimented, manipulated, and changed. His grandmother's recipes are traditional southern recipes, as her roots come from from Georgia, while his mother’s recipes use special ingredients. As Wilson continued talking about his family dishes, he only dropped certain ingredients used, “The barbeque chicken isn’t actually barbeque chicken. It’s made with string beans… and stuff like that. My mom makes her own custard for the trifle and it’s topped with fruit. But I’m not telling you which fruit.” He said sassily.
The New York native’s absolute favorite dish is a cheese dip that is a combination of textures, cheesy, crunchy, creamy and it melts in your mouth. The cheese dip is typically made for special occasions such as birthday or celebration. When asked what possible ingredients were in the dip he immediately responded with a blunt, “Nope” and added that it is best eaten with Wheat Thin crackers. The recipe was brought into the family by his cousin’s wife (who was married in) after the passing of his grandfather, “she didn’t give us the recipe for years.” Secret recipes were made by the appropriate person and no one else witnessed them in the making.
Wilson has made his own secret recipes, a barbeque sauce and macaroni and cheese dish, “We just like to make food and not tell anyone how it’s made,” he said. Wilson plans on passing these recipes down to his future kids once they move into their own homes.
The transition from the family home to a college dorm may disrupt the tradition of regular family dinners which many families partake in; however, most students are still able to enjoy these meals when they return home during the holidays. According to a poll done by CBS News/New York Times, 48 percent of children are in a home that has dined together 6 or 7 nights in the previous week, a figure that has not wavered much since 1990. The tradition of family dinners is very much alive and while these traditions can be different for many families, they still have a lasting impact on the positive connection they foster between family members and the well being of the individual members.
A 2013 study by K. Musick and A. Meier in the periodical, Journal of Marriage and Family, “the study confirmed a positive correlation existed between more frequent family dinners and lower instances of depressive symptoms, substance use, and delinquent acts.” In addition, “Families with more frequent shared dinner times reported "higher global family relationship quality, better relationships, more activities, fewer arguments with a parent, and greater parental control."
Along with dining, cooking involves teaching, trial and error, and a great deal of patience, thus fostering a strong bonding experience. The practice of family dining varies for different families and cultures; some families bless their food and some do not begin dining until everyone is present at the table.
Traditions change with time and they are often dependent on an individual carrying them on. “I was the first one to stop praying before my meals because I prayed in Catholic school enough,” Wilson said, “I’m not even Catholic, so eventually it just kinda followed suit.” Wilson’s grandmother still prays and blesses her food before dining, while the rest of the family eventually followed Wilson and stopped. For Uzomba, family dinners started at the dining table, and eventually transitioned to tv dinners.
These recipe and traditions may be reciprocated as they continue to find their way from through numerous generations; however, the values surrounding the recipes grow more sentimental over time. For example, LaCle may not be a fan of seafood, but having a feasible tradition that he is able to make with his own hands gives him a strong sense of connection,
“...just the fact that now I have the recipe, it was passed down to me, she [his mother] trusted me with that; that was super empowering. “ As these students spoke about their families and memories associated with these recipes, a common thread of gratitude and happiness appeared. The best part about cooking harira for Suissa was having the opportunity to spend time with her grandmother, “and doing something with her, meaningful, and connecting back to an ancient tradition”. That being said, cooking plays an important role in letting these kids connect back to their families as they grow up and begin their own families.