If I asked you what were the defining elements of your family’s cultural heritage, what would you say?
Would you identify a particular national or ethnic identity or a long-lived association with a landscape or city? Is it a dialect, a handed-down occupation or religious observance? Would it be the food you put on the table?
This historytracings blog takes up the theme of family cultural heritage and legacies again to look in particular at the poignancy of family recipes, foods and food traditions and their place within family cultural heritage. On this theme we recently asked the British composer and conductor Debbie Wiseman, MBE, about the recipes and memories which form part of her family’s food heritage.
In your family have you been handed down recipes from earlier generations or have you been bequeathed a cookery book by a loved one? Are there particular dishes which trigger distinct personal memories of people from your earlier life and which immediately take you back to a former time and place? Is it a particular smell or flavour, ingredient or texture which produce associations, nostalgia or flashbacks?
Food has the amazing capacity to be both everyday and sublimely out of this world. Perhaps you know what the signature dish is you would want to bequeath to your descendants. But, do you know which meals your family would say epitomises your family’s food culture? For each individual, the memories, associations and reasons for their choices would be uniquely distinct.
Food to remember is both food that is memorable and food that triggers memories.
In Natasha Solomons’ novel Mr Rosenblum’s List, for Sadie, the German-Jewish wife of the protagonist Jack Rosenblum, cooking was an “act of remembrance”. The couple had left Nazi Germany in 1937 and found refuge in London. As Sadie mourns the loss of her family and former life in Berlin, baking the recipes she had received from her mother became even more intensely a way to remember, epitomised in once particular cake, the Baumtorte, whose many layers could each recall a family member. For Sadie “history could be carried forwards in tastes and smells”.
Particular food has this intense capacity to trigger vivid recollections of former times, people and places. Taste and smell both induce strong physical and emotional responses bound up with memory. The act of cooking too recalls perhaps distinct memories of doing the same alongside family members who have passed on, and in sharing specific meals we relive past family rituals, celebrations and traditions .
During this season of remembering the long reign of the British Queen Elizabeth II we talked recently with the composer and conductor Debbie Wiseman, MBE, about her current role as Classic FM’s Composer in Residence and her commission to compose the Overture and Finale music for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration in May 2016. The Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebration album will be released on May 13, 2016 and a donation from every sale will go to The Royal Society of Musicians of which the Queen is Patron.
With cultural heritage and memory in mind we asked Debbie to share with us something of her family’s food heritage. Debbie’s parents were born in the UK, whilst her paternal grandfather arrived in the UK from Russia.
Is there one particular location which epitomises your family’s cultural heritage for you?
The location that I immediately think of when I remember my family is Eastbourne. My grandparents loved it there and we went on many family holidays with my parents to the Grand Hotel. They loved the sea, and a walk along the Eastbourne coastline on a sunny day was a delightful pastime.
Are there cooking recipes which have been passed down to you?
My mother passed down many recipes, but my favourite one which I make most often is apple crumble. Very simple to make, and always delicious.
What role does food play within your family’s cultural inheritance?
Food was always at the centre of our family life and we, almost every evening, would sit down for a family evening meal together, something which is sadly so often not the case with families today who have such different and often incompatible work and school schedules.
Do you have particular memories associated with any specific dish from your childhood?
The main memory of a dish from childhood is my mother’s casserole, made with lots of barley. It always used to smell delicious as it was cooking away for hours, and if I walked in from school and there was a casserole in the oven it was always the most comforting welcome home.
Do you personally have a signature dish?
My cooking skills are very limited, but if I have a signature dish then it would be the apple crumble recipe passed down by my mother, served simply with cream or custard.
If you could bequeath one of your favourite recipes what would it be?
My favourite recipe to bequeath would be my husband’s recipe for butternut squash soup – it involves quite a lot of preparation, but is definitely worth the effort.
Whether you deliberately eat to remember or cook to remember, every day food has the amazing capacity to unexpectedly evoke powerful memories. Food continually makes surprising memories too, that can shape your family’s cultural heritage for generations to come. All you need to do is write your recipes down so you can pass them on.
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 29/04/2016
At historytrace we would like to heartily thank Debbie Wiseman, MBE, for her contribution to this blog piece.
Debbie Wiseman, The Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebration album, will be released by Silva Classics, 13/05/2016.
Natasha Solomons, Mr Rosenblum’s List (Sceptre, 2010), cited pages 159 and 213.
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