The food we eat feeds what we become. We build on the communal experiences that we share around the family dinner table each and every day’s end. Mom’s apple pie, Christmas dinner and your father’s weird barbecue experiments are often the nostalgic foundation of what “Home” means to you. Yet we are letting go of that formative experience, allowing fast food chains cook our meals in combos, and we shrug off the digital addictions at our table as just the way things are. How many people do you know who believe that cooking equates with frozen, canned and microwaveable foods? When was the last time you smelled freshly baked bread that was made by hand? Can you even remember how warm bread slathered in cold butter tastes. Perhaps it is time to make a concerted change: collect your family’s recipes, and learn to use them before they disappear, before you lose your heritage and ancestral building blocks.
Before the holidays I shot a few products for the mastermind behind Base Camp X, Graeme Cameron. I have been photographing his creations and collaborations since 2011. Given the small scale of his production methods, I chose to waive my usual fees in exchange for products. I did this because I believe in the values and convictions he shared with me during our first portrait session, and frankly, I loved the feel of his tools in my hand. Since we started I have shot hundred of images for him, and I never regret a single hour spent learning how to photograph a hammer (like this collaboration with Hardcore), an axe or, as in today’s case, his Sketch Journal.
As payment for the latest session I requested to keep the book. I had a plan, and once I held the oversized journal in my left hand I was inspired. I would copy my family’s kitchen recipes into the heavy artist paper; I would create an archival record of the foods that fed my ancestors, and possibly feed my descendants in decades to follow. With the intrepid nature of a cloistered monk, I ventured into a great scheme of only copying the recipe into the book after I had prepared a full version of the recipe. In this way I would honour the food, learn about any changes I might deem worthwhile for modern tastes, and to give me the gift of reflecting upon the people who nurtured me with both food and wisdom as we sat around a family table.
For the first recipe I chose an Estonian Kringel. Despite not being Estonian, myself, I had been asked by M.’s family to bake their traditional bread for the holiday season. I sourced the recipe from M.’s grandmother and sifted through a process completely unknown by me, but held in great esteem by my fiancé’s family. Putting that recipe first, ahead of my own family’s, stands as a symbol of our relationship and of how I see our tribe coming together around the table.
The second and third recipes also related to the holidays. I chose my great grandmother’s traditional Christmas meat pie recipe: Poti. The family pronunciation for the pork and onion calzone is “potty”, but after a bit of research I found it to be an Acadian-based pie, which was probably handed down from my Acadian French ancestors. As a boy growing up in Charlottetown, we served it on Christmas morning, cold, and usually with Coca-Cola or strong tea. It was only served once a year. It was Christmas morning to me, and just before the matriarch of my father’s family died, I had Helen [aka Honey] explain the process and contents of the dish. I took it upon myself to learn how to make it. I took it upon myself to learn how to make it better than before, and in a way closer to how I imagine my ancestors used to make it. Next year, I will split the pork ration with an equal amount of fresh rabbit, as Helen suggested that my great grandmother’s family used to do before we became too reliant on store bought meats when they worked for Canada Packers in the pig abattoir.
The third recipe is much more simple, but closer to my heart: my mother’s turkey stuffing. While it only contains white bread, raw onions, butter and summer savoury, it is one of my favourite treats. Fresh from the oven, enriched with turkey fat and drippings, this stuffing never fails me, but it, too, would be lost had I not taken the time to copy it down. I had no written recipe for it, because we just all knew how to make it. The kids were always asked to tear up the white bread for what seemed like hours. We knew the tricks, but no one wrote anything down until now.
Three recipes down. Next up I will make my mother’s biscuits [from a lard box in the 70s], her apple pie [baked from apples on the tree we climbed on], my creme brûlée that my mother always asks for when I return home to visit [taken from an Emile Henri recipe in the early 90s], and a pizza dough I started learning when I was a poor student at McGill University in Montreal. Maybe I will add the brilliant Red Fife Bread recipe I recently started making by hand in October. Perhaps I will copy a few of my favourites from The New Joy of Cooking or that authentic croissant recipe I learned while at a class in Paris, France this summer. The key is that I will bake, cook and write until the tome is complete. 3 pages down, 197 to go.
The piece I reflect on with this family cookbook is that it will take time, but that a legacy and a heritage archive should take time. I do not need a digital copy. I do not need a series of photocopies hastily pasted into a cheap notebook. I do not need poor penmanship that will be indecipherable in 10 years. I have all of those things already. I need to build a book that my grandchildren can look through and maybe, just maybe, wonder who the strange, old man that wrote these words down onto expensive paper bound by heavy leather was. Perhaps I will appear like a wizard with his magic potions; I feel like one with every formula I steadfastly copy into to magi book of food spells.