Food Is Love: The Importance of Family Recipes During the Holidays

Sometimes, a pie recipe is a pie recipe, and sometimes, as Valerie J. Frey can attest, it’s a time machine — a portal to home cooks, and to holidays gone by.

“When you are following the same [recipes] that the person before you did, they’re sort of there with you in the kitchen,” says Frey. “It can be a lovely way to reattach.”

Frey is an archivist and author of Preserving Family Recipes: How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions. Her book is a both a celebration of the family recipe, and a manual on how to ensure that your aunt’s Bundt-cake secrets or your own gravy formulas are saved for future generations — and celebrations.

“I think we get nostalgic for [family recipes] around the holidays,” Frey says. “It’s a time of year where there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of tradition.”

A 2015 survey on American baking habits showed that traditional recipes trump contemporary ones, and by a wide margin, during the year-end holidays. The bias holds year-round, too, Despite a wealth of cooking shows, cooking blogs and plain old cookbooks, another survey found that Americans are more likely to be inspired in the kitchen by family recipes than by any other single source.

“There’s a real emotional value to them,” Frey says, and she speaks from batter- and dough-tested experience.

Frey says she spent years in the kitchen chasing her late mother’s chess tarts. Made up of two dozen mini pecan pies with brown sugar and nut filling inside a homemade crust baked in a muffin tin, the dessert was a holiday staple of Frey’s childhood. It was based on a 1959 recipe that her mother found. But like many home cooks, Frey’s mother didn’t follow Betty Crocker teaspoon by teaspoon; she changed things up. And while her ability to improvise made magic, it also made it difficult for her chess tart to be replicated.

“I couldn’t get it right,” Frey says.

While Frey tinkered, she took steps to ensure that her own recipes wouldn’t be so hard to crack. To this day, she inputs every notation into a computer, backs up every file, and, for good measure, prints out everything and organizes the pages in three-ring binders — one for each season of the year. Older, handwritten recipes, from her mother and grandparents, are scanned or photocopied, and also slipped into the binders. Organization can be its own labor of love.

Meanwhile, on the chess-tart front, Frey’s trial-and-error baking finally paid off. “I gave one to my big brother,” Frey says. “He said, ‘That is a little round time machine.'”

Such is the power of the family recipe that it not only to recreates tastes, textures and smells for those who were there, but also for those who weren’t.

“I lost both of my parents in my early 20s, so my husband and son never met them,” Frey says, “but I feel like their food brings them into their lives.”

And right to the holiday table.