What My Grandmother's Recipe Taught Me About The Power Of Taste

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A couple of days before I was to host my first Thanksgiving at my house, I sent my aunt a message. 

Can I have Great-grandma’s recipe for cranberry sauce?” 

My aunt is the keeper of our family’s old recipes, many of them written out in my great-grandmother’s cursive scrawl. Despite her having died nearly 20 years ago, I can remember her cranberry sauce as if I’d eaten it yesterday, The tanginess of the cranberries mixed with a hint of orange, the zest of which is sprinkled on top as garnish. The crystal dish she served it in. The bright tone of the cranberries against the even brighter tone of the orange. I was nervous about serving my first Thanksgiving dinner to my in-laws, and I wanted to make a good impression. I knew my great grandmother’s passed-down, age-old recipe would do the trick.

I quickly received a reply from my aunt, who told me that she couldn’t stop laughing.

“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. Then, she sent a picture. There, amid my great-grandmother’s handwritten recipes — the cookies from Germany, the German potato salad, the flaky pastry we had on Christmas — was a perfectly square, cut-out piece of plastic taped in the book.

It was a recipe from a bag of Ocean Spray cranberries.

Of course, I made it, following the directions. And, of course, it tasted just like hers. And that was the point. Sure, I’d been after some passed-down tradition, but when it came down to it, wasn’t I really after the taste? It didn’t matter who the author was, or that she didn’t even bother to write it out herself. If Ocean Spray was what she used, then Ocean Spray was what I wanted.

"Through recipes, through flavors, through the way we put our mark on things, we create indelible memories for our loved ones."

 

A lot of ink has been spent on the way our senses can transport us to another place, another life. We’ve all had the experience of smelling something familiar — a Thanksgiving turkey roasting, for example — and being reminded of a particular time or tradition. And I’m sure many of us have had the experience of hearing a song and remembering a specific time in our lives when we had listened to it all the time. But, I would argue, taste is the sense that has the biggest power to transport us. And, in the case of family recipes, it has an even deeper power. For me, with my grandmother’s cranberry sauce, regardless of its source, it was like suddenly she was there, making something she’d made for me so many times, something that had given me comfort.

Here’s another story, which is both heartwarming and involves pie. (It’s always good to tell stories that involve pie.) A friend of mine was at an apple pie festival — an event in a church where every old lady in this small Vermont town had made their own apple pie. There, she watched as a big, hulking guy sat down and took a bite of pie, and then promptly began to cry. He leapt up from his seat, went over to the little old lady who had made it, and lifted her in the air in a huge hug. “It tastes just like my mother’s,” he said through tears. “Thank you.”

That, to me, is the power we hold in not just who we are to one another, but what we give one another, and what we are capable of passing down. Through recipes, through flavors, through the way we put our mark on things, we create indelible memories for our loved ones.

In my house, I keep a notebook where I write down all of the simple, cherished things my husband, daughters, and I like to eat together. Sometimes I’ll jot down a specific time we made it or when we tend to serve it — a holiday, a birthday, any old Sunday. My hope is that someday my daughters will flip through the book and it will make their favorite memories come back to life. Perhaps they’ll pass them down to their own kids, too.

Tags: Grandparents

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Written By

Lauren Harkawik

Lauren Harkawik is an essayist, journalist, and fiction writer in Vermont, where she and her husband are raising their daughters. See Full Bio

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