Do you or your family have secret recipes? You know, Nonna's amazing apple cake or that noodle dish or salad dressing whose secrets you will never reveal? Not me! I'm a big fan of sharing the love (and the deliciousness) so I'm more than happy to let you know how I made something or my favorite, magical, transformative ingredient. But I know this is not true for everyone.
Claudia Roden and her family in their garden in Cairo.
I was reminded of the secret family recipe today when I listened to a wonderful interview with the great British cook and food writer Claudia Roden ('a collector of recipes, a keeper of memories.') She was describing the time of the 1956 Suez crisis in Egypt. Jewish friends and relatives, fleeing the turmoil, would pass through her London flat where she lived with her parents, all refugees themselves. Her mother had developed a passion for cooking, which resulted in large, boisterous dinners where delicious smells of cumin and garlic would perfume the air with the scent of Cairo, uniting everyone in the comfort and enjoyment of finding home again, even in this unlikely London flat. Claudia said:
"One of the conversations was very much 'tell me your recipe, tell me your recipe' and it really struck me because these were people who never gave each other recipes because they were family secrets. But now, we might never see each other again, we might never see Egypt again, and so we were we saying, give me that cake (recipe) so I will have something to remember you by."
Sheila Dillon, the host of the BBC Radio 4 show that aired the program, referred to the recipes as 'talismans against loss and forgetting' which is a very beautiful way to think about recipes. Sharing the table, gathering for shelter, food, and companionship, is so much a part of our human life — recipes are the continuity, the legacy, of those gatherings. They represent our sense of belonging, one of our deepest needs. But if guarded too carefully, they can also represent our less than desirable human tendencies towards exclusivity and isolationism.
It's easy to understand why there are secret recipes and why it's important for some folks to have their own, family-branded versions of favorite dishes and why it would feel like a betrayal to share them. But Claudia Roden's story reminded me that when there is a crisis in our community, the border between us and them is revealed to be very thin, if not nonexistent. Her friends, family, and fellow countrymen chose not to contract and hide from each other but to gather and celebrate, to open and welcome and share their lives in ways that they never had before. They understood how much they needed each other, how it was no longer possible to live with secrets, even if it was just a little scrap of paper scribbled with a few ingredients and the briefest instruction.
I say let's not wait for the inevitable folly of human deeds and misdeeds to push us into needing a talisman against loss and forgetting. It shouldn't take a major world crisis for us to let down our barriers and gather around the table, sharing the very best we have to offer. Secrets are tantalizing and maybe even a little fun and perhaps when times are good, they may seem harmless. But it doesn't take much for us to understand that in the end, they only limit us in ways that are painful. Consider the poignancy, the larger, more tragic story surrounding the request to share a cake recipe so I will have something to remember you by.
So it is in this spirit that I share with you today my secret ingredient, which I inherited from my mother: celery seed! It is especially good in mayo-based dips and salads such as potato salad and egg salad but it also goes into pickles, seeded breads, and soups and stews. It's great with pork dishes, too. Celery seed has a delightful, vegetal, celery-like flavor. It's also very strong — a small pinch goes a long way! I'm very grateful that my mother shared her secret ingredient with me from an early age because even though we're both still around, I will always have something to remember her by.
What's your secret recipe or ingredient?
→ Be sure to listen to the Radio 4 Food Programme's piece Claudia Roden: A LIfe Through Food.
(Image credits: Dana Velden; BBC)