In my younger years, I found myself drawn to the exotic food traditions of those around me, feeling like my own food heritage was, well, unexciting. Compared to the standard American meals we ate at home, it seemed other people’s kitchens were brimming with rich culinary traditions, such as:
- A grade-school friend whose Cuban mother would bring various spiced dishes for us to sample on special occasions in the classroom.
- A college roommate with proud Dutch ancestry who would enjoy homemade oliebollen, a doughnut-like pastry, with her family around the holidays.
- A work colleague whose Mexican mother made incredible tamales for their traditional Christmas meal.
- A friend of a friend who brought seeds back from Italy so he could grow the specific pepper he needed for the incredible spaghetti sauce recipe handed down from the old country.
Given that the most recent immigrants in my family tree arrived in the late 1800s, my food heritage involves the typical small-town All-American fare: roast beef and mashed potatoes, casseroles, grilled hamburgers and macaroni salad, fish sticks and mac ’n cheese. (And, because my parents and grandparents hail from a small town in Idaho, various combinations of Jell-O, Cool Whip, and fruit cocktail.)
As I’ve started cooking for my own family, enjoying the increased confidence that comes with age and experience, I’ve (mostly) let go of ridiculous comparisons to other people’s family recipes. A meal doesn’t have to impress someone else for it to be meaningful to me. Tamales and oliebollen only seem exotic because I grew up eating something different. As hard as it is to imagine, there’s probably someone out there who considers macaroni salad a rare and luxurious treat.
Whether you cook traditional recipes handed down for generations or are starting your food traditions from scratch, here are three ways to weave your own unique heritage into your family meals, both on special occasions and every day of the week.
Tip #1: Celebrate the Food You Grew Up Eating
As a newlywed, I loved trying new recipe after new recipe, boldly forging my own path in the kitchen. In recent years, as I’ve come to appreciate my mother and grandmothers more and more, I’ve decided to be more mindful about cooking the food they cooked. Here are a few ways I’ve embraced my family’s food traditions:
- At Easter time and any other time we cook a ham, I proudly whip up my Grandma Mona’s mustard sauce. I’ve also baked several recipes from the cookbook she typed up for a family reunion in the 1980s.
- Every Independence Day, I relish the chance to make the most traditional American 4th of July meal imaginable: grilled hamburgers, my mom’s macaroni salad, corn on the cob, potato chips, a bowl of black olives to slip on little-kid fingers, and strawberry shortcake (with blueberries added in honor of the red, white, and blue).
- When my husband’s not looking (he’s not a fan), I make a comfort food from my childhood: American goulash. Nothing like the Hungarian original, our version involves elbow macaroni, ground beef, Italian seasoning, mom’s bottled tomatoes, canned corn, seasoned salt, and shredded cheddar cheese.
Embrace what’s unique about the food you grew up eating, and take the time to document some of the memories surrounding your childhood meals. Even consider preparing some of those dishes, for old times’ sake. If you have old recipes in your mom’s or grandma’s handwriting, take pictures with your smartphone and upload them to the FamilySearch app, adding your thoughts and memories for context.
Tip #2: Research New Family Dishes
The lack of so-called glamour in the recipes handed down by my forebears hasn’t stopped me from bringing my heritage into my kitchen in other ways.
Because we have distant Irish ancestry, my mom often prepared corned beef and cabbage soup on St. Patrick’s Day—not an old family recipe, just something she started. That particular dish doesn’t fly with my family, so I’ve started my own March 17th tradition: corned beef paired with colcannon, a mashed-potato-and-cabbage dish I found online that quickly became a favorite. Who cares if it’s not a family recipe? It’s still a fun way to honor my remote Irish roots—and spark protests from my husband and stepson about failing to honor their much more recent Norwegian heritage. (My husband’s grandmother emigrated from Norway.)
So I did a little research and discovered that Norway’s Constitution Day is May 17th—exactly two months after my Irish holiday—and is a great excuse to prepare Norwegian fare for my two favorite Vikings. I rejected anything involving lutefisk, pigs’ feet, or a whole sheep’s head, and finally landed on something much more palatable: Norwegian pancakes.
Weave your deep ancestry into your current food traditions. Search online for traditional dishes from your ancestors’ home countries, and find special occasions on which to prepare them. You might make homemade guacamole on Cinco de Mayo, stir-fry around Chinese New Year, or pasta e fagioli on Italy’s Liberation Day.
Tip #3: Pioneer Your Own Food Traditions
My friend Wendy was raised in a middle-class home by parents who both came from disadvantaged backgrounds. In forming their own family, Wendy’s parents had to start from scratch when it came to many basic life skills. Her mom learned a rotation of recipes that she was comfortable cooking, and she rarely departed from it. The dishes are practical and affordable, nothing fancy or exotic, but they are meaningful in their simplicity. Wendy cooks some of those recipes for her own children, including the church-potluck staple Hawaiian haystacks.
Wendy has also taken a pioneering role in her family in thinking more deliberately about the food legacy she wants to leave.
- As a nod to their European ancestry, Wendy hosts crepe parties for her family, providing a wide variety of savory and sweet toppings.
- She started a tradition of baking and decorating hundreds of sugar cookies with her kids and their cousins around Christmastime, and it’s still going strong more than 20 years later.
- She regularly prepares shepherd’s pie in honor of her husband’s mission for The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints to England before they were married.
- Now that three of her sons have served missions (to French-speaking Canada, the Philippines, and Peru), she tries to prepare a dish from each country around the holidays.
Another tradition started after the death of Wendy’s brother, when a neighbor brought a rice-based comfort dish made with hamburger and tomato juice. One of her sons loved it so much that it has become known within the family as “Justin’s rice,” and it will certainly be remembered by her children and probably future generations as well.
If you don’t have established food traditions, take the initiative to start your own. I have plenty of cookbooks that I’ve used over the years, but I collect my favorite recipes in a three-ring binder, where I handwrite the instructions and always include notes about where the recipe came from, when I started making it, and why we love it. I hope it will be a wonderful keepsake to pass down to my daughter and her children. I haven’t yet included goulash in the book, but I have a spot saved for it under the Pasta tab.