"There's a new obsession at the intersection of genealogy and foodie culture" - wrote the Wall Street Journal back in February this year - "reconstructing beloved, long-lost family recipes. Fueled by nostalgia and thrift, legions of eaters are returning to the kitchen for some food detective work, searching for the half-remembered dishes they grew up sharing at the family dinner table".
We all have certain foods that we grew up with, associating them to a specific person. Foods whose smell or flavors immediately make us think of that specific person; foods that we try and replicate precisely because we long for that person, or we are trying to re-experience those feelings we used to have growing up.
Think about it: a pie that grandma - and only grandma - used to make in a certain way; a soup that your mom or aunt used to make when you were sick - and only when you were sick. You probably know that the version you used to eat is not the best in the world from a purely technical point of view: that you (or someone else) could improve upon them, developing better flavors. And yet, you also know that doing such a thing, improving these recipes, would be very, very wrong (sinful?). And if I need to explain you why, then we obviously do not share the same vision of the world.
But perhaps I am projecting, and it is not true that "we all have" those foods. But I certainly do. I can think of five, in particular. Three were made by my mother: the "torta della nonna" (Grandma's tart) with lemon custard, that sooner or later I will talk about; the pasta e fagioli that I already talked about here; the sole filet with butter and lemon that I always - and I mean always - had when I was sick with a flu, laying in bed. (There is a funny side story to this: up until when I was 25, I honestly believed that you only had sole when you were sick: I assumed this fish contained a portentous medical ingredient that allowed us all to feel better during flu time. When I moved to Belgium and found out that "sole meuniere" was one of the national dishes that people ate EVEN when they were not sick I was really very surprised).
|My mother's Torta della Nonna, replicated by yours truly: I will talk about that soon.|
My mother being (thankfully) alive, these three recipes are not lost: in spite of her absolute lack of precision in measuring ingredients ("just put some flour and some water...how much, you ask? Why, enough for the recipe to come out, obviously...you'll need to eyeball it"), after a lot of trials and errors I was able to replicate the flavors of these recipes (the sole was easy; grandma's tart and pasta e fagioli were not).
However, two additional recipes are now lost: they ended up in the grave together with my two grandmothers who used to make them. One recipe - the "miglieccio" - was some sort of a pie made with a specific type of flour that my paternal grandma used to bring home from her tiny village. Now, if I google that name, a lot of things come up, but none of them has any resemblance with the dish I have been trying to replicate with a 100% failure rate. I know nothing about this dish: not even a single ingredient aside from water. And water, my friends, is not an ingredient unique enough to try and replicate a recipe from...
If the miglieccio is an unsolvable mystery at the moment (and I fear it will remain such for a long time), the last recipe is a puzzle whose pieces I have been increasingly closer to put together, but whose solution escapes me yet: riso con le patate. Rice with potatoes, guys. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. It is a soup with very few ingredients (as most of Italian "poor" cuisine): rice, potatoes, water, canned tomatoes. And yet I have NOT been able to replicate the consistency nor the flavors of the soup that my grandmother used to make.
Again, nobody seems to be able to help me. It comes out good, no question about that. But it doesn't come out as it should. And I know it is not a question of complexity of the recipe: my maternal grandmother was a terrible cook. So whatever it is that I can't replicate, it is not a question of techniques. I remember she was playing some voodoo with the plates, covering up the bowl for some time after pouring in the soup, so that the soup had time to develop a thin film that you could "crack" with your spoon...this is not a soup to be eaten hot out of the pot. Yet, no luck.
|Riso con le patate: we are almost there, but we are not there yet|
"An aroma, identified in the brain's limbic system, can trigger an emotional memory, but it takes hard work in the kitchen to put the right ingredients together in the right proportions to produce the ancestral potato salad, pasta sauce or crumb cake", continues the WSJ.
I sometimes wonder whether my lack of result is simply due to the fact that my memory never existed: what I remember as flavors is perhaps a mixture of childhood past dreams, feelings of security, memories of long gone smiles. And yet I know I can do it: I have made it with other recipes, I can make it with this one. And if I can make it with riso con le patate, then miglieccio here I come...