About two years ago, just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, my grandmother passed away.
One of the most kind, caring people you'd ever be likely to meet, my grandma was many things: a wonderful singer, an accomplished baker, a talented artist... she was the type of person who acquired skills like most people acquire debt: unintentionally and with great haste. So, when she entered the end-stages of Parkinson's Disease and was denied the activities she so dearly loved by her own failing body, her death came as a bittersweet release.
If you've never lost a loved one, it may have never occurred to you that when someone dies, they leave all their stuff behind. For some people, these things get enshrined, never to be touched again. For others, they get boxed away and put out of sight. Generally, though, when a loved one passes, these possessions get distributed amongst family and friends as a reminder of what was lost.
A Treasured Discovery
After the funeral, while the family told stories and shared treasured works amongst a lifetime of artistic output, my brother zeroed in on something both mundane and altogether rare: her recipes.
Like many women of her generation, my grandmother was an exceptional cook. Her food was one of the things we looked forward to most when visiting, so it should come as no surprise that we viewed these recipes as especially precious.
But, while her recipe cards offered us the chance to taste her food again—and pass the experience on to our own children—there was something else that I found even more beautiful: evidence of a small, close-knit community, built and maintained over decades.
After the holidays, when the sting of our loss started to dull and life regained some semblance of normalcy, I sat down and started digitizing that stack of recipes. After the first few cards, I began to notice names written in the corners—some I recognized, but others I didn't. Having grown up during the transition from analogue to digital, and then digital to "connected," the concept of recipe cards was hardly new to me, but what I didn't expect was just how many of them were attributed to other people.
To be clear, it's not the fact that the recipes came from other people that was so surprising, but the fact that their sources were so carefully cited. Seriously, I've read books with less diligent bibliographies. Card after card with the name of the source noted in the corner, often prefixed with the phrase "from the kitchen of."
The Real Social Network
In today's hyper-connected, social-media driven world, sharing is something that has become largely impersonal. You post a link here, or send a newsletter there, but the experience overall can be like shouting into the wind. But, to me, all of this speaks to a tight-knit community, where recipes were traded between individual members, with their backstories told directly from mouth to ear.
We've all looked up a recipe on the internet only to be regaled with a 12,000 word tale of suspense, drama, and then triumph in the face of adversity before getting to the list of ingredients. It's an attempt at connection, or at least context, that has become a meme in itself in recent years; but before the advent of the World Wide Web, recipes were shared in an entirely more personal way—but, I suspect, with just as much enthusiasm.