Cooking – the Immaterial Heirloom

When I was a kid, we moved house a lot. Not for me the house owned by our family for generations, with childhood friends living next door, with a familiar bedroom from babyhood to goth, or even the dated marks made in pencil along the door frame of the kitchen that chart the children’s growth from tiny to taller than Dad. 

As a result, to me “home” was (and is) a fluid concept that centered around where the people were that counted in my life. I remember one day, while visiting New York City with my family (a mere 6000km from our house), I whined about “going home” after a long day walking the soles off our trainers. I meant the hotel in Manhattan; home was wherever we slept.

It is not surprising, so, that for our family the idea of inheritance is not necessarily a physical one. Sure, we have a few family heirlooms – a painting by my great-uncle Jimmy, a ring made by my uncle René for my grand-mother’s 50th birthday – but most of our inheritance is immaterial.

For one, we grew up multilingual and multicultural. I suppose that is the first and biggest hand-me-down from our parents, and one that is both a blessing and a curse, as it bestows the ability to feel at home anywhere while simultaneously depriving us of the ability belong any one place completely. When people ask me what nationality I feel, I don’t always know how to answer. It’s a bit like asking what colour a rainbow is.

Another would definitely be our food culture. A post on Facebook the other day had me thinking. A friend expressed her amazement at how all the colourful seeds and grains, cheeses and leaves, sprouts and vegetables she ate for lunch at her local café – and which she loved – would have been alien to her as a child and how thankful she was for the varity of things available to her in our global village. And although I have discovered new tastes as I have grown up and continue to do so, I can be thankful to my parents for the variety and quality of foods I ate and learned about as a child. I also grew up multi-food-cultural. 

My mother was a great cook. She could make a feast of next to nothing. Her recipes are still the center of daily cooking for my sister, my brother and myself. When we were teenagers, soon to fly the nest, my mother wrote out her best ones by hand in neat type, photocopied them three times – once for each of her children – and assembled them into sensible, wipeable ring binders, including one for herself with all the originals. This is probably my most prized possession.


As a result, I guard its content jealously. I don’t give those recipes away. Ever.

This has got me into embarrassing situations more than once. I often bake for my pupils or colleagues, but when another teacher tells me “This is really good! Can I have the recipe!” I smile, shake my head and explain that it’s from my mothers “sacred” cookbook and that those recipes are a secret. At that point, she usually looks offended, slightly sour, and I have lost her sympathy for at least the rest of the school year. But I won’t just hand out my mother’s precious recipes just like that (and definitely not to a sourpuss who always treats me like I am about to teach in her living room when my class is assigned to her usual classroom. Pffft!)

My husband is mortified by this. He once made a scene because he couldn’t believe the rudeness of it all. “You can’t do that!”, he says. But I hold fast. I will guard my family’s intellectual property. That is all.

Stories abound of old ladies in the American South trying to weasel Lydia Stackhouse’s recipe for pecan pie out of her before she kicks the bucket, or of women trying to taste, ingredient by ingredient, what makes Cynthia Jones’s pasta salad better than their own at the neighbourhood barbeque. Some of you might understand my point of view. Others might just think I am basically a bitch (who makes excellent pecan pie and better-than-average pasta salad).

It is a rare occurrence, but it has happened once or twice that I have added a recipe to the family cookbook. It is my way of continuing to grow the inheritance, I suppose, but those recipes have to withstand rigorous testing and tweaking until they are just the way I want them, and they need to be approved by my Official Tasting Committee (hubby and kids) who are a discerning bunch. I write them neatly into a little blue recipe book an old friend gave me about 15 years ago. If a recipe goes in there, it is – literally – a keeper. 


I share plenty of recipes. Lots… I mean, look at my blog! But not the ones in my grimoire familial – my Family Spellbook. I often make and share the things I cook and bake, and have been known to deliver. But don’t ask to take home a piece of what’s essentially my antique grandfather clock.

Last week my Auntie Carole came over with a gorgeous Moroccan orange cake for my sister and I to try. She gave us the recipe and let me take a snap of her own family cookbook…

They never look like much, but they are simply irreplaceable. A company in the USA can transform your hand-written heirloom recipes into beautiful tea towels. I read about it on Martha Stewart’s page a few weeks ago and I think it’s a beautiful idea. 

Have you got a family cookbook? Or do you call your Mum or your Granny when you need to cook something you don’t quite master? Just take my advice and don’t wait too long to write some of these down… Time and tide wait for no man. 

2 thoughts on “Cooking – the Immaterial Heirloom

  1. My mom is also an excellent cook but did not write any book. She cooks by instinct and the recipes change depending on the ingredients she has.

    Thanks for sharing your story, I envy you for being the owner of such treasure !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! We mostly cook without recipe, too, so about 2/3 of the recipes in our book are for baking, but they really kind of make up the “gold nuggets” that never fail.
      I also have a jotter where I used to write down bits of things, like how to cook the red cabbage she always made with venison, or how much dried yeast equals fresh yeast.
      Love your blog, by the way!


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