In the modern world, spending time in the kitchen and developing new methods and recipes for cooking has somewhat diminished – with many preferring the sociability and immediate readiness presented by restaurants and fast-food establishments. With so much choice and a wide-range of cuisine styles, it is easy to see why but whilst we are spoilt for choice, are we depriving ourselves of the same choices and styles in our own kitchens?
Elaine Leong’s article on collecting knowledge has made me consider what culinary secrets my family may hold, if any and why such knowledge has not been passed down to me as readily as it may have been for a first-born daughter in an early modern household. Leong explains that the family worked as a collective and that no one member was exempt from contributing to the pages of what would become a family book, dedicated to food recipes and medicinal recipes for the curing or relief from ailments but also of lineage and family history.  Whilst I can’t imagine my parents keeping such records, as they too prefer the efficiency of modern-day dining and have the luxury of modern healthcare, I thought of my nan, who seems to always be hand-preparing food for our visits.
Upon speaking with her, I soon came to the realisation that whilst early modern households preferred the handwritten sources of knowledge, my Nan retained hers internally. When I questioned her on any potential family recipes passed down from her mother and Nan she simply replied with “It’s all in my head. I remember because I watched my mother do it so often, it just became something ingrained.” To my surprise she also told me that she had never measured anything and that written recipes, because of their reliance on measurements, were better thought of rather than written down – as by reading them, you felt restricted to follow them precisely. Instead she judges her quantities based on visual appearance – something else she attributes to watching her mother closely in the kitchen. All the recipes she then went on to give examples of tended to be those of the dessert type – puddings and cakes.
When I questioned her further on why she had never passed down the knowledge to my mother, she simply replied that it was because she didn’t need it and had never asked or showed an interest in collecting the knowledge. My mother, whilst she cooks many fresh and homey meals, does not tend to make things such as bread and puddings from scratch – which is mainly since they are so cheaply and readily available in the supermarkets pre-made. Modern-day families tend to be working families now, with each member absent from the house daily, going about work and education. When and if the entire family does reside in the same room at the same time, time is very much of the essence and so in respect of my mother’s household, there simply isn’t the time to invest so much in to baking and dessert making.
Only a few hours after the initial conversation with my Nan, I received another call from her – correcting her early notion that every recipe she had was mentally retained as she had a digitally kept version of a recipe for Irish Soda Bread passed down from my granddad’s side of the family. It had come in to her possession after a distant family member had come across the recipe in his ancestors’ collections and had transcribed it digitally to distribute to those members of the family that lived too far from him to be able to verbally communicate. Upon glancing at the recipe, I suddenly came to a realisation about my own habits of collecting information.
Whilst I have already mentioned my awareness of my Nan hand-preparing food, I personally, had never asked for her advice when preparing food, myself. The digital format of the soda bread recipe was so familiar to me that I realised that I had spent a great deal of time looking up recipes through search engines, rather than collecting it generationally and I had done so naturally and without thought. With everything so readily available via the internet and with the devices connected to the internet being so vast and numerous, I had flocked to them for the answers to my questions, rather than speaking with the people in my family. As a product of my time, I also tend to buy ready-made ingredients from the supermarket and much of my daily food is plucked from the depths of my freezer. Whilst I cannot change my past actions, glancing over the surface of the potential culinary secrets of my family has made me determined to give use to my kitchen and to make the most of the knowledge that could be available to me, if I only I could stray from the convenience of the internet and verbally and physically communicate with those around me.
 Elaine Leong, Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household (2013) <https://doi.org/10.1111/1600-0498.12019> Wiley Library Online Library <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/> [date accessed 28 March 2019]
5 thoughts on “Collecting Knowledge and Family Secrets.”
I learned a lot of how to cook from my mother, and some from friends. I have added to this over the years. Your reflection reminds me of the memoirs of Molly Hughes who grew up in Victorian London and learned to cook watching her mother. There was no weighing or measuring, just knowledge of what looked right handed through the generations.
It is really interesting seeing how new technology has altered the way in which recipes are passed through families, if they are passed on at all. Its lovely to see that in some cases such personal family recipes are still being discussed through different generations, across wider areas because of technological advancements. However, it is also evident to see how the accessibility of recipes online could cause verbal transference of recipes to decrease, interesting to consider!
It is interesting to see how other generations do not need to search digitally or have recipes written down, but they just know it off by heart. Have there been any recent recipes you have asked your family to make?
I enjoyed the generational dynamic examined in your post. Will you now ask your Nan to pass on recipes? Did your mum pass on or teach you recipes for meals as you were growing up?
I definitely want to extract the recipes from my nan before they’re lost. I have high hopes that I’ll be able to pass them down to my daughter once I’ve tried them out and adjusted them to my families preference, of course!
I can’t say she did. My mum also cooks on instinct rather than written recipes. I’m sure if I asked her she’d be able to tell me the way she cooks certain things but truthfully, I have never asked. Maybe I shall compile a list from both my mum and nan!
Do you have any family recipes?