Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Forging Connection with Family Recipes

When we find ourselves feeling homesick, heartbroken or lost, many of us turn to comforting meals. Food can ease the heart and mind just as much as it can fill our bellies, and it’s an important part of our lives. This is especially true for certain recipes, ones that pepper our memories like chocolate chips in banana bread, providing sweet moments that we remember far into the future. For many people, these special meals are family recipes that have been passed down for generations. 

Graphic by Payton Davies.

Nimal Amarasinghe, the Executive Chef of Bon Appétit at Whitman, spoke to me about some of his family recipes, which have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.

“I was the youngest in my family, so I’m very close to my mom. I love my dad, but I’m a momma’s boy. So I go to school, and probably I’m six years, seven years old. I come and peel the shallots for her,” Amarasinghe said, reminiscing on how he started cooking. 

As he grew older, he gained a deeper knowledge of his family recipes. 

“I’m helping [my mom], so when she’s sick, I cook for the family now, slowly. Family recipes [are] pretty much anything my mom cooks. We don’t use the recipe books – she learned from her mom, that family learned from their mom,” Amarasinghe said.

These recipes do not taste the same every time; each cook puts their personal touch on the recipe. In fact, Amarasinghe can always tell who cooked the family chicken curry based on how it tastes.

“Even though family ingredients are basic ingredients, we make our own curry mix powder. We make our own coriander, cumin, fennel, cinnamon, cardamom … base, ratio: slightly different. How much you toast it: slightly different,” Amarasinghe said. 

Senior Francesca Rossi’s family approaches their iconic recipe of homemade pasta in a similar way.

“I feel like it’s a little bit less of exact recipes and more being in the kitchen and knowing how the recipe is supposed to be. Once you know that, you can do whatever you want. My dad makes these jokes … he’d be like, ‘You have to be really exact when you pour this flour in,’ and then he’d just dump it in. It’s more of ‘you add how much you feel,’ and that comes from being in the kitchen a lot,” Rossi said.

Rossi grew up making pasta with her dad, whether it be at home or in conferences at her middle school where parents visited to teach fun workshops. Their recipe is simple (two cups of flour, three eggs, a dash of olive oil, and a pinch of salt) and is a meal that Rossi’s family continues to make together.

Nancy Monacelli, proprietor and namesake of Mama Monacelli’s in downtown Walla Walla, also emphasized the importance of family in cooking. In fact, the idea of family is in the name of her business, paying homage to her role as mother to five kids. 

When I asked about family recipes, she recounted several dishes. Some recipes, like her English toffee and scones, are family recipes that she also sells in her store. Others live in her home, and in the homes of her children and grandchildren. 

Monacelli has enough recipes that her daughter was able to put together a family cookbook, which she gifted Monacelli as a Christmas gift. Her family appreciates her recipes and is always looking to try them on their own.

“I constantly get requests from the kids,” Monacelli said. “‘Hey, Mom, will you send me this recipe or that?’”

She finds joy from sharing her talents and expertise with her kids, especially as they continue to turn to her for recipes and cooking advice. 

Each of my interviewees had their own personal recipes, but similar themes emerged regarding the significance of these meals. One common thread was the idea of connection. 

“[Passing recipes down] does forge long-lasting memories, and I think it also creates a passion for cooking when you’re not by your family. There’s already a connection even when you’re not home,” Rossi said. “I was making gnocchi the other night, and that was a way of feeling like I’m home, even though I’m not home.”

Food is not only a form of connection in the kitchen with family, it can also transcend distance by bringing comforting and familiar flavors into the immediate moment. 

Amarasinghe emphasized this when talking about his desire to teach his son family recipes. 

“When he [goes] to college, he can make the same food and make some friends,” Amarasinghe said. “Yes, food brings people together, no matter what. Nobody will refuse to eat food if it’s free,” 

Not only can he pass on his knowledge and recipes to his son, but he can also provide his son with the tools to connect with new people through food.

Family recipes can link us with more than just our families or friends; they can also connect us with our culture. For example, Monacelli, like Rossi, has a family pasta recipe that comes from her husband, who draws from his Italian roots. This allows her husband to stay in touch with his ties to Italy, while also sharing this part of himself with others.

For Amarasinghe, the cultural aspect of family recipes is key. 

“I’m by myself in this country – like in the sense I have my son and my family – but my family: my brother, sisters, mom, everybody … they are in Sri Lanka. I talk on the phone, I see their face, but when I crave [home], I always make coconut sambal,” Amarsinghe said. 

Coconut sambal is one of his family recipes, and he described it to me. 

“Coconut sambal is the most simple ingredients, very few ingredients. Coconut, chili, sometimes green chili, shallots, salt and lime, sometimes little black pepper. That one we mortar and pestle – you grind it – and a piece of bread, or a piece of flat bread, a roti, we call it.”

Being far away from family is hard, no matter how established your life in a new place is. Amarasinghe is able to find comfort and connection to Sri Lanka through certain recipes. Although he enjoys inventing new dishes, it’s hard to beat tried and true family recipes. 

“Yes, we have fusion food. Yes, we have new creations, but where is our root? Where is our origin? How can I say I’m a Sri Lankan if I don’t know my family, family recipes, family food?” Amarsinghe said. 

Holding tight to recipes that you learned from your parents or grandparents keeps the ties to our origins – whether it be culture, country or language – strong. For many people, it’s important to have those recipes in their back pocket, reminding them of where they came from. 

This is not to say that family recipes don’t have room for change. They often evolve depending on who is cooking, but this is part of the charm. Some inventions in old recipes allow individuals in a family to express their unique selves in their food. 

Rossi’s family has experimented with their traditional pasta recipe by adding beets, spinach and matcha powder to create new colors. This has been a fun activity and allows them to play with the classic recipe, while also building memories as a family. Monacelli also experiments with recipes, especially when it comes to dietary restrictions. 

“It’s a personal challenge to be able to take something and make it allergy sensitive and still have it taste good. What we like to say is that if you can tell it’s gluten free, we’ve failed because you shouldn’t be able to. Just because people have dietary restrictions doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to have yummy stuff,” Monacelli said.

As someone who has been gluten free for over ten years, Monacelli is always experimenting with allergy-friendly recipes and has created new iconic recipes in the process.

While family recipes are important as a familial staple, there is flexibility within them, whether it be the slightest change to the spice level, trying new colors, or adapting the recipe to accommodate a new dietary restriction. 

Another common thread between interviewees was the way that family recipes can hold memories.

Monacelli recounted one of her happiest food-related memories with a smile. This memory took place a few Christmases ago and was the last Christmas that all of her kids, as well as her sister, were home for the holiday.

“We actually have a video of everybody in the kitchen,” Monacelli said. “My husband brought his guitar in … everybody was singing Christmas carols and harmonizing and cooking together.”

Monacelli loves to share her kitchen with her children and grandchildren, and continues to look back on those days fondly. She credits food for the strength of these memories.

“We know that sounds like music will evoke memories, but smells do that, and certainly with food you can have a lot of those things that trigger those memories. And if they’re happy memories, then that’s even better. My oldest son never fails to walk in my house and say, ‘Oh, Mom, your kitchen always smells so good,’” Monacelli said. 

Rossi also holds strong memories from a childhood of pasta-making. One of her fondest memories revolves around an Italian dinner club her family visited and cooked.

“You’d be making a ton of pasta. It would be really hectic; you make pasta for anywhere between 30 and 50 people, so it would be a full experience of making tons and tons of pasta batches,” Rossi said. 

Making pasta is exhausting work, but that’s also part of the appeal. Rossi emphasized how satisfying a bowl of pasta tasted after cooking for hours, growing hungry and tired from being on your feet for so long. Another aspect of her core memories revolve around enjoying the pasta with her family after they all put in so much hard work to create it. 

Her family cooking nourished her in the moment, restoring her energy after hours of hard work, and it continues to nourish her to this day, carrying connections, history and memories. 

This rings true for all of my interviewees and speaks to the importance of family recipes. They are more than words on paper (if they even are written, as many families pass recipes on by simply showing their kids how to make them). These recipes are family. They embody cultures and stories and can maintain ties across vast distances and time. 

Whether you have enough recipes to fill a cookbook, or aren’t quite sure if you have a family recipe, consider exploring cooking as a way to bond with the people you love. Bringing old recipes into your present life can be a powerful way to connect with your family, building shared memories and joy.

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