Making favorite family recipes helps us hold onto the loved ones we miss most.
If the smell of spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove sends you straight into a happy daydream of your long-gone grandmother’s kitchen, you’re not alone.
Smell triggers nostalgia—more so than any other of the five senses. Scientists say that’s because the neural path from the nose is directly connected to the parts of the brain that process emotion and memory. The same isn’t true of sight, sound or touch, so those senses don’t make us remember the past in the same way that smell does.
But taste? Taste and smell are intimately bound together in the way our bodies experience them. Our memories of the food we loved during our formative years are destined to be some of the strongest memories we’ll ever have.
That means that preparing recipes we once shared with our dearly departed loved ones is perhaps the single most powerful thing we can do to summon the feeling of their closeness.
Take Sue, for example. Her family always makes a point of making the Greek custard pastry called galaktoboureko when they gather for a big holiday meal. Not because it’s a traditional holiday dish—rather, it’s a way of connecting with the family members that are no longer with them.
“I was taught to make this dish by my Aunt Georgia,” Sue says. “She was the Greek cooking matriarch of the family and the one who kept the traditions. I remember her having me come over as a teenager and teaching me some of her cooking secrets. Her house always smelled so good, probably because of the classic Mediterranean ingredients she cooked with: wine, cinnamon, lemons, oregano, butter, etc.”
So now her family holds onto Aunt Georgia’s legacy in the dining room. “No matter what holiday it is,” Sue says, “there is bound to be at least one Greek dish on the table.”
Then there’s Maddie, whose family takes much the same approach in remembering her mother.
“My mom was an excellent cook—everyone always wanted to go to her house for holidays,” Maddie recalls. “She passed away this year from Alzheimer’s. The one thing we have missed for a long time is her cooking—with Alzheimer’s, she didn’t remember how for about the last eight years.”
One particular recipe helps Maddie and her siblings travel back in time to childhood: her mother’s pasteles, a Puerto Rican tamale. “When my mom made pasteles,” she says, “we all had a job to do. My sisters were in charge of the sofrito [sauce]; Dad and I grated the vegetables by hand; my brothers trimmed the plantain leaves and cut the aluminum foil; and Mom made the meat mixture.” Those happy memories come back to life every year now as Maddie recreates the smells and tastes that go along with them.
The phenomenon is no less powerful for chefs than it is for homemakers. That’s why Legacy.com, the worldwide hub for obituaries, memorials and life stories, also has a “Recipe Vault” section devoted to collecting meaningful, memory-laden family recipes from culinary professionals.
Take food blogger Naz Deravian, who describes how she summons her late grandmother’s spirit by preparing her unique loaded potato recipe.
“She was quite a character,” Deravian smiles. “Just full of life, and not your typical grandmother. We didn’t call her Grandma—in Persian, we called her Maman Ghashangi, which means ‘Beautiful Mom.’ Maman Ghashangi would come stay with me on occasion when my parents would work. My mom would have various stews and soups premade and stored away in the freezer, and in the morning, she would take the stew out and leave it out for my grandma to serve me for lunch. A nourishing, well-balanced meal.
“As soon as my mom would leave, my grandma would put the soup back in the freezer, and what we would have for lunch was one of her favorite things. It was essentially just a baked potato, but it was the most delicious and comforting baked potato ever. She would bake the potato and then drizzle it with olive oil, warm, and then mash it up with plenty of salt and spices. On occasion, there might be an egg either cracked onto it or mixed into it. It just hit all the comforting points. To me, that was her, it was fun—it was an act of rebellion against my mom.”
Making the recipe herself, Deravian says, is a simple yet profound way to connect her grandmother’s love from childhood with her own children’s today. “If I need a quick lunch, or even a quick snack for my kids, this is what I’ll go to,” she says. “You have the eggs, you have the protein, and it’s nutritious and simple. But most of all, it’s delicious—and it reminds me of those lunches we had together.”
Similarly, Kurt Michael Friese, author of the cookbook “A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland,” has no trouble bringing to mind his first clear memory: an impression of being a three- or four-year-old in his parents’ kitchen.
“My mom and my dad would put a little stool next to the stove,” he says. “My earliest memory is stirring a raisin sauce for the Easter ham—so I felt like I made the stuff… I think I might be a member of the last generation to actually learn how to cook at his mother’s apron strings.”
Friese sees those memories as even having an even greater role in our family legacies than honoring what has come before.
“We prepare food for our families for a very specific purpose,” he says. “The old cliché, ‘You are what you eat,’ became a cliché because it’s literally true. That means that your children are what you feed them… The passion and love that you put into the cooking will manifest itself in the dish, and in the people who are eating it. I believe that firmly.”