Everyone has their own food story. In her book, Mamma: Reflections on the Food that Makes Us, author Mina Holland says recipes are as much a part of our personal narratives as family photographs and legends.
Why the food remembered from childhood and the food we call comfort foods have earned that place in the heart and on the table is the heart of this book. In each of the stories shared in the book, the discussion is about what we ate as children, where it came from, who cooked it and who shared it with us. The goal is to explain how even a bowl of pasta can create bonds between families, communities and even countries that last many lifetimes.
Mamma begins with warm remembrances of the author’s grandmother who made the family cakes, deviled eggs and simple vinaigrettes that were anything but fancy yet beloved. Then her scope broadens to include what turns out to be a timely interview with cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden, who came to London with her family when they were forced from Egypt in the 1950s. Roden says her family’s traditional foods mattered to all the stateless Egyptian Jews, who like her family, found themselves suddenly living elsewhere. Cooking familiar foods from a faraway homeland with ingredients hard to find in their new home, made the refugees feel connected and part of something bigger, she said. Anyone who has spent days, months or years hunting down a key ingredient for a favorite family dish, understands that finding the sour salt, special cheese or spice blend can make you feel part of a centuries old journey taken by many others for many decades.
In this book, the stories matter more than the recipes. It’s a good bet you’ve seen all the recipes in the book before or know of a better way to make almost all of them. This book isn’t about haute cuisine, it’s about food you made after a long day, when it’s too cold to go out, or there’s not much left in the fridge. Holland gathers oral histories from a collection of well-known chefs and foodies including Anna del Conte, Stanley Tucci and Yotam Ottolenghi. While you may not be tempted to make any of the recipes the author and her interview subjects remember fondly, what it will most likely do is send you looking for your own family recipe book to reconsider some of the favorites you may have forgotten.
Holland, who is the editor of Britain’s Guardian Cook examines her own favorite comfort foods and tries to connect them to key people, places and events in her own life. She writes in detail about her mother’s gift of a “family recipe heritage box” that includes all the recipes (at least the ones that were written down) from generations of family cooks going back to her childhood and back even farther. I have a similar collection. My aunt assembled a family recipe heritage book for my mother when she got married. It included not only my grandmother’s recipes (collected by my aunt trailing my grandmother around in the kitchen with pieces of wax paper to take and measure each ingredient) but the recipes of my mother’s other relatives as well whose names were carefully typed or written in the top right hand corner of each recipe. A name that appears frequently in our book is “Betty Shapiro” my aunt’s sister-in-law and a fantastic cook. Although I never had a chance to meet her in person, I grew up eating and loving her food. Later, my mother added her own recipes, lifted from newspapers and women’s’ magazines of the 1960s and 70s, including the recipe for the very best M&M cookies I have ever eaten in my life and I have sampled M&M cookies all over the world hoping to find someone who could make cookies like this this.
Mamma is a very different kind of cookery book. Instead of inspiring you to cook from this book, it inspires you to cook from your own recipe book of favorite dishes. After reading Holland’s recollection of making vinaigrette with her granny and actor Stanley Tucci’s fond recollections of cucumber salad doused with a bit of olive oil and oregano, I scurried off to the farmer’s market for some fresh cucumbers and sour cream to make the salad my mother loved to serve before dinner. Just seeing the cucumbers maybe with a few cherry tomatoes tossed in sour cream in the big salad bowl in the center of the table wordlessly shouts home and comfort to me.
Particularly charming is Holland’s meditation on the fine art of leftovers. Rather than seeing pieces of chicken, portions of vegetables, a tiny remnant of cheese and a few tablespoons of pasta sauce in a jar, she sees it as an opportunity for creativity along the lines of Chopped, but with higher stakes; the winner of the home cook’s mystery basket dinner round wins something much better than $10,000 — they win the smiling faces of a happy, well-fed family. I know I was always excited to see just a tiny bit of turkey or roast beef left in the fridge because it could only mean one thing. My father was going to make mashed potatoes, sautee some onions and make the most delicious leftover hash.
And that’s what Mamma is about, the tastes and smells and cooking rituals of the food we loved in our formative years that goes on to shape the way we think about food today. Whether the memories are of good cooks, fair cooks or a parent who was simply handy with a can opener and a microwave, what we ate then and what we like to eat now, are influenced by the people that came before. Whether that inspires a need to recreate old favorites, or invent a new twist on a less that perfect family staple, building on traditions is the essence of home cooking. Mamma tells us those foods should be celebrated for being exactly what they are and of course, she is right.
Photo by alanagkelly, CC BY-SA 2.0
Frances Katz is a writer and photographer originally from Boston now living in Atlanta. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Catapult, Roads & Kingdoms, Lonely Planet News and others.