About ten years ago, I had an experience that changed my thoughts about cooking forever more. Let me explain:
I was working for Saveur magazine, sitting in my dark little cubicle somewhere in Manhattan’s midtown, on the telephone to Italy, interviewing three middle-aged women in the city of Bologna about their traditional recipes for the famous Italian meat-sauce Ragu alla Bolognese. After a year of living, eating, and cooking in Italy, I wasn’t really surprised by the way they described the feelings they had about their recipes.
One said, “For me, ragu' is a special dish that I make at home for my children and my grandchildren. It is important for children to grow up on this kind of nutritious food. For my grandchildren, no one's lasagne beats grandma's.” Another reported, “My ragu' is my mother's, and her ragu' was my grandmother's. It's the original. For me, it's the top, and making it gives me immense joy.” And yet a third remembered, “I learned my ragu' from [my grandmother]. I don't remember one particular lesson. I learned it like I learned to talk, little by little. I started as a child […].At 5 years old, I was a chef.”
It was the third memory that really got me thinking: Today's food world is a world of cookbooks, recipe websites, and food magazines. Foodies, especially here in America, enjoy a strange and trendy combination of microwaves and takeout, kale and quinoa, cronuts and molecular gastronomy. For how long will people, in particular immigrants now removed from their families and their culture of origin, be able to say they learned to cook something traditional at their mother’s or grandmother’s apron strings “like [they] learned to talk”?