IN DEBRA BRUNO'S WASHINGTON HOME, it wouldn't be Christmas without retelling the story of her one-armed Italian great-grandmother and her famous ravioli recipe. And Hanukkah? Just another week in December until Sandy Weiswasser in Northwest makes the crisp, diminutive latkes from the recipe her Polish grandmother bequeathed her. As for Joan Shih of Silver Spring, the delicate pearl balls she makes for the Chinese New Year remind her of the family she left behind in Taiwan half a century ago.
For all these women, their heirloom recipes are more than just a list of ingredients and directions. They conjure up memories, laughter, history and the wistful hope that grandchildren will continue a beloved tradition.
Cooking these recipes at holiday time is also a way of bringing long-lost relatives back to life, even for just a few hours in a warm kitchen. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver describes the feeling as "inhabiting the emotional companionship of the person who taught me how to make a particular dish, or with whom I used to cook it." She can feel them standing in the kitchen with her as she cooks their recipes, she writes in her recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
Great heirloom recipes also have the lure of a great story behind them, says editor Christopher Kimball. His Cook's Country magazine sponsored an heirloom recipe preservation contest earlier this year that generated nearly 3,000 entries (normally, the magazine receives about 500 entries for its monthly recipe contest). The recipes that were submitted came with intriguing tales about family members, tough times when ingredients were scarce and regional favorites that have fallen out of favor.
At holiday times, in particular, recipes that are handed down from one generation to the next take on a special significance. Kimball calls them part of a family's narrative. Writer Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, who learned to cook at her great-grandmother's side in Luray, Va., resists even calling them recipes. In her essay, "But Really, There Are No Recipes . . ." in Through the Kitchen Window, a compilation edited by Arlene Voski Avakian, she writes: "This is about art and love, not about technique. Some things need to be learned standing beside someone."
Candy Sagon is a former writer for The Post's Food section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.