Celebrating Canada’s culinary heritage, one family recipe at a time

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A few years after the death of my mother, my sister handed me a stack of hand-written recipes, and I immediately recognized my mom’s handwriting. Each well-worn sheet of paper, some with tiny smudges of grease and dots of spices, brought on a flood of memories not to mention a few tears of my mother in her kitchen.

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It was her favorite room in the house and it always smelled so yummy – roasts and casseroles, sauces and soups, cookies at Christmas and gorgeous chocolate cakes. And the aroma of hot espresso coffee every single morning.

My mother’s recipes are her legacy, to be cherished and handed down, and I recall how comforting it all was – and still is, holding onto bits of paper knowing her hands had once held the same pieces of paper.

My family isn’t the only one who sees the joy in recipes and the home-cooked meals they create. A new Leger Marketing survey, conducted on behalf of Ancestry (ancestry.ca), specialists in tracing family histories, reveals that seven in 10 Canadians say their most memorable family moments are centered around home-cooked meals and eating together.

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These predominantly happy memories, key to our past, helped sustain us throughout the years, and are particularly crucial given the pandemic times we are now living.

According to research from the American Psychological Association, (apa.org), “people who have fond memories of childhood, tend to have better health, less depression and fewer chronic illnesses as older adults,” noted the site.

Memories are good but, according to the recent Leger/Ancestry survey, almost half (44%) of Canadians worry that part of their family history will be lost if cherished recipes don’t get passed down. The survey revealed that food heritage is considered “one of the most prominent traditions passed down from generation to generation,” with nearly three quarters of Canadians stating in a recent release that they first learned to cook at home with their parents or grandparents.

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And people’s family recipes have staying power – at least 67% of Canadians surveyed cook at least one recipe that has been passed down by another family member.

Lesley Anderson
Lesley Anderson Photo by supplied /Lesley Anderson

Recipes have a historical basis, and give insight into how people’s ancestors lived, notes Lesley Anderson, a historian who credits her family Cookery Book homemade cookbook as the reason she entered into the field of genealogy in the first place. The much-loved recipe book – written in 1907 by her great-aunt Mary Elizabeth Carr – was gifted to Anderson by her mother at the age of 21, and it opened a door into Anderson’s past de ella and into a long-lost world filled with memories and love.

“Holding an item that is over 100 years old and knowing that my ancestors also held this book and made these recipes… is so poignant for me,” said Anderson, in a recent interview. “Recipes and cookery books can be really meaningful family heirlooms, connecting you to your heritage and providing you with the opportunity to bring the stories of your family to life through cooking the same food they once made and shared.”

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Family recipes are heirlooms, said Anderson, adding they are direct connections to long-lost relatives and family history. “It’s like finding a long-lost birth certificate that connects you with people from another time, another country – but it’s also part of your identity and heritage.”

Anderson said when she was given her family’s Cookery Book, it was the perfect conduct “to a career in genealogy. I was curious about my own family’s history, which led to helping others discover theirs.”

The connection is particularly strong when one considers the times the recipes were written, from the ingredients used in the recipes to the actual pen or pencil and paper used to write everything down.

One Anderson recipe is particularly fond of is for scones – passed down from one generation to the next. Thanks to that recipe, Anderson was able to trace her family members throughout the decades, learning much about her ancestors from her.

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“Someone held that pen, someone wrote those recipes, it’s quite profound when you think of it,” adds Anderson, who discovered through her own research that several of her family members were pastry chefs. “Recipes truly give you a window into the past.”

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Food Day Canada is coming up this Saturday, a true celebration of Canadian cuisine, and a perfect time to haul out old family recipes and tell your stories about them. It’s a wonderful way to hand down memories, keep heritages alive and just enjoy a family meal that has come down through the ages.

Canadian Culinary History

If you want to learn more about the rich heritage of Canada’s culinary history, check out the Culinary Historians of Canada website (culinaryhistorians.ca) which is jam-packed with food stories, ideas and heritage cookbooks, not to mention insights from some of the country’s most powerful cookbook authors and writers.

“The mission of the Culinary Historians of Canada is to inspire appreciation and advance knowledge of Canada’s food history (which) has been shaped by the food traditions of the First Nations peoples and generations of immigrants from all parts of the world,” noted the website .

As well, check out the works of artist Christine De Vuono (christinedevuono.com/cookbooks), who has taken images of old and much loved recipes and turned them into a gallery of Canada’s culinary history.

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