Not long ago, Erin made what she describes as “the world’s ugliest pasty.” (A pasty—which “unfortunately rhymes with nasty, not tasty,” says Erin—is a savory pie traditionally filled with ground beef, potato, and onion.) “I couldn’t get the crust to seal neatly,” she recalls. And so she sent an SOS text, along with a photo of her misshapen attempt, to her mother, Claire.
“She called me back and talked me through the crimping process. My next one was much prettier,” says Erin, a Brooklyn-based writer and the author of How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew. (Claire’s secret? Slowly bring up one side of the crust to meet the other, then twist or roll the edges together and under. Any tears can be repaired with a dab of water.)
The pasty recipe, brought to this country by immigrant miners from Cornwall, England, has been in Erin’s family for generations. When she was growing up, her mother and grandmother made them for dinner for Erin and her older sister at least once a month. “My mom would prepare the potatoes and onions while my grandmother made the dough,” says Erin. “Then my mom would stand back and watch the magic. My grandmother was evidently some sort of pastry whisperer, always able to turn out a perfect crust.”
No wonder Erin felt intimidated about trying the beloved dish herself. Finally, five years ago, after a visit home to Allentown, Pennsylvania, Erin asked Claire for the recipe. Her mother was delighted to pass it on. “So few people even know what pasties are, much less how to make them,” says Erin. “I felt like my mom was entrusting me to carry on our shared history.” Get the recipe forMeat and Potato Pasties.
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Recipe: Eggplant Caviar
The cook: Nora Kogan, 43 Her mother: Victoria Borodai (deceased)
Throughout her 20s, whenever Nora called to say she was coming home to Melbourne, Australia, her mother, Victoria, would ask the same question: “What should I make for you?” And Nora often gave the same answer: Victoria’s smoky, rich eggplant caviar, with black bread on the side. They would share the dish while Nora spoke of her adventures meeting fascinating people and picking up odd jobs as she traveled the world.
Victoria ate up Nora’s stories. “She loved dressing well and giving parties,” recalls Nora, a jewelry designer and boutique owner who is now settled in New York City. “And talk about mischievous. I still remember her picking me up from my stuffy private girls’ high school in her sports car, lighting a cigarette and handing it to me.”
Victoria had always been a free spirit, even while growing up under a strict Communist regime in Siberia. In 1977, after the Soviet Union announced that it would allow Jewish citizens (like Victoria and her husband) to seek asylum in other countries, she jumped at the opportunity for a better life for young Nora. Before the family left for Australia, Victoria asked relatives for their best recipes, including the one for eggplant caviar.
In 1997 Victoria, 52, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Three months before she died, she threw a birthday party for herself—a traditional Russian sit-down dinner for more than 30 friends. The menu included pâté, lamb shashlik (kebabs), flowing vodka, and, of course, eggplant caviar—which Nora had prepared.
“It was bittersweet to see her happily surrounded by loved ones and her favorite foods,” says Nora. “She boasted to everyone that I had made the eggplant caviar. My mother was always so proud of everything I did.” Get the recipe forEggplant Caviar.
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Recipe: Camarones Enchiladas
The cook: Alejandra Ramos, 27 Her mother: Yolanda, 56
Growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, Alejandra listened longingly as her friends described the huge Sunday feasts they ate with their families. “Their food seemed more exciting than anything my little brother and I had at home,” says Alejandra, whose parents had grown up in Puerto Rico. Truth be told, she didn’t truly appreciate her mother’s cooking until college.
In her junior year, a boy she liked asked her if she would cook him a Puerto Rican dish. Panicked, she called her mother; Yolanda e-mailed instructions for camarones enchilados, or deviled shrimp, her crowd-pleasing dish of shrimp simmered in a spicy tomato sauce.
As the dorm’s tiny kitchen filled with the familiar fragrance of sautéed onion and cilantro, Alejandra had a eureka moment. “It was almost like my mom was there with me,” says the Manhattan-based editor. “I realized how powerful those smells and tastes were. And I remembered the wonderful hours we spent talking while she made dinner.”
Alejandra’s first camarones enchilados were “flawless,” but the dinner was a bust. Her crush revealed he had a shrimp allergy and couldn’t take a bite. Alejandra lost interest in the guy but remained fascinated with her culinary heritage.
She went on to attend cooking school and now writes a food blog, but the dishes she loves the most are those from her childhood, such as the camarones. “When I started cooking, I was interested in escape and exploring the exotic, but now I’m looking for a connection to home,” she says. “When I have children someday, I love that my kitchen will smell as good and feel as safe and happy as the one my mom made sure I grew up in.”
One evening in the fall of 1959, Jane’s father arrived at their suburban Boston home with a surprise—a new blender. Her mother, Patricia, was delighted, but the Cheddar chicken recipe that came in the box turned out to be the real gift. “It was one of the few dishes my five brothers, two sisters, and I could all agree on,” says Jane of the juicy chicken breasts coated in a buttery cheese topping. “We ate it at least once a week.”
By the time Jane moved out in her early 20s, she could prepare the dish from memory (although she found it easier to forgo the blender and simply crush the crackers in their sleeve). “I’ve made Cheddar chicken for friends on three continents,” she says. “And, yes, there are those who have scoffed at such an unglamorous dish. Funny thing is, though, they always ask for seconds.”
One person Jane didn’t make Cheddar chicken for was her mother. “From the time I hit 16 until my late 20s, we didn’t really get along,” says Jane, “so I kept my distance.” But once Jane became a mother (to Claudia, 12, and Christian, 8), she and Patricia started to find some common ground. “When Claudia was a newborn and got sick for the first time, my mom talked me off the ledge,” says Jane. “I realized how many children she had tended to in her day and all that she had done for me.” Her mother is now a real friend.
Recently Jane, who owns a New York City-based PR firm, spent two tiring days in Boston working with a client. Five minutes after Jane arrived at her mother’s house, Patricia handed her a glass of white wine and a plate of (you guessed it) Cheddar chicken. Upon seeing the familiar dish, says Jane, “I was comforted to the point of tears.”
When Nancy was a child, her mother, Joy, spent such long hours at the office that she rarely made it home to eat dinner, much less in time to prepare it. A babysitter cooked meals for Nancy and her older sister. (Nancy’s parents divorced when she was about a year old.)
It was only on Sundays that Joy, a venture capitalist (now retired), would get behind the stove. “She made a few dishes very well, and spaghetti with meatballs and gravy was one of them,” says Nancy, a vice president for an international hotel group. “When we spent an afternoon together, I loved cooking this recipe with her, which was handed down from my Sicilian great-grandmother. What I loved more, though, was the way my mother left the business world outside and focused on me.”
Joy nicknamed Nancy her “little shadow” because she followed her so devotedly around their apartment. As an adult, Nancy continued to follow in her mom’s ambitious footsteps. Like Joy, she works long hours and travels extensively, which means she rarely cooks for her husband and stepdaughters, Jenna, 17, and Maria, 16.
But when Nancy does have a few free hours, she spends them in the kitchen of her Norwalk, Connecticut, home. “When I’m cooking, I can let my guard down in a way that I can’t doing anything else. It’s an escape for me, like it was for my mom,” says Nancy. And the recipe she turns to most often? For family occasions, it’s Joy’s version of spaghetti and meatballs. (Nancy has lightened the recipe by replacing her mother’s beef and pork with turkey.) “There’s nothing fancy about the dish,” says Nancy. “It doesn’t require a sophisticated palate. It just tastes good.”
The cook: Melanie Scherenzel, 34 Her mother: Beverley (deceased)
As a kid, Melanie had two choices of weekend activities. She could stay outside with her father and help him tend the fruit and vegetable garden that surrounded their suburban Toronto home. Or she could head to the kitchen, where her mother, Beverley, turned the harvest into sumptuous fruit pies that earned her ribbons in baking contests.
Melanie usually chose the kitchen. “Cooking was a creative outlet for my mom,” she says of Beverley, who lost a battle with colon cancer 4½ years ago. “Even though my role was limited to sous-chef, I never felt as close to her as when I was standing next to her at the stove.”
When Beverley made rhubarb-strawberry pie (Melanie’s favorite), she let her daughter cut the rhubarb and help roll out the crust. “She knew instinctively how much sugar to add if the stalks were bitter. And if we were short on flour, she would make the pie into a crisp with an oatmeal and brown-sugar topping,” says Melanie, now a communications executive who lives in Brooklyn. “The results were always wonderful.” And those occasions when her mother used a store-bought piecrust? It was their secret. If someone complimented Beverley, says Melanie, “she would look across the room and give me a small, sly smile.”
Baking grew into a passion for Melanie, too. “No dinner party is complete unless I’ve made a perfect dessert,” she says. And as she cooks, she entertains her daughter, Sidney, 4 (shown above with Melanie), with tales of the grandmother she never met. Little can budge Sidney from the tiny stool she parks at the counter—and not just because she loves listening to stories, says Melanie: “She also wants to be the first person in line to eat what comes out of the oven.”
Do you have a delicious dish (say, Aunt Lily’s biscuits or Dad’s lasagna) that has been handed down by someone in your family? Tell us why it matters to you—and how to make it—and the recipe could appear in a future issue of the magazine. Click here to submit your pick.