Homemade cardamom bread sprinkled with pearl sugar is an annual treat in the DeRosa home in Cranston, Rhode Island. The family’s two young boys, 11 and 14, tell stories about their Granduncle Olof as it bakes: his family farm in New England, his cows, his truck, his big hands, and his recipe for bread, which he learned from his mother, who immigrated from Sweden.
The DeRosa family found that making ancestral recipes like cardamon bread lifted the boys’ spirits when they started growing tired of homeschooling during the pandemic. It kept the boys motivated, says Family Dinner Project director Anne Fishel, who collects and studies stories like these.
"The pandemic is giving parents a chance to share memories [like family recipes] that are really important to them that they want their kids to remember,” says Fishel, who’s also a clinical psychologist and family therapist.
In uncertain times, it makes sense to seek comfort in food and family. And the DeRosas aren’t alone. According to a study by the Hartman Group, 66 percent of Americans are cooking at home more than they did before the pandemic; 39 percent are baking more; and just over 30 percent are preparing food more frequently as a family.
Making recipes that celebrate ancestry is a great way to keep the generations connected, especially now. The rituals and stories that are part of cooking help kids understand and appreciate their heritage. Plus, spending time together in the kitchen creates new memories and helps kids gain perspective on the pandemic.
The long-term benefits
During the pandemic, Mai Uchida and her family in Watertown, Massachusetts, have been cooking heritage meals together like udon noodles, using colorful vegetables such as spinach and carrots to make “stomach paintings.” Uchida learned this idea when she was growing up in Japan, where her grandmother always said: “Eat as if you are painting a picture in your stomach.”
This tip has come in handy as a way to encourage Uchida’s five-year-old son to eat his vegetables. But it’s also made him more curious about Japanese recipes. Plus, he’s developed independence during the pandemic by learning to make some ancestral foods on his own, like hand-rolled sushi.
The rewards of learning about ancestry through recipes go beyond bonding at family dinners. It’s a way to strengthen kids’ sense of identity, says research psychologist Gail Ferguson, who directs the Culture and Family Life Lab at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. “It’s really a positive thing for children and adolescents to connect to their cultural heritage, even if it’s distant,” Ferguson says. “Cooking can be a way to strengthen that.”
Ferguson and her colleagues study a child development concept they call “remote enculturation,” which is connecting to a heritage culture when you’re far away from it. Ferguson is from Jamaica and implemented this practice when she was raising her kids in the United States.
Cooking ancestral recipes, Ferguson notes, is one way to carry out remote enculturation. "You can see how that would be different than just going to a restaurant and buying the meal,” she says. “It would take a lot more engagement.”
Ferguson says this connection to identity helps kids find meaning. She points to a study that shows how exploring heritage can lead to greater psychological well-being, a stronger sense of identity, and even better grades.
“This has been shown to be true for youth from all racial backgrounds, youth of color, and also white youth in the United States,” she adds. “Parents should feel really good about helping their children connect to their heritage.”
Connecting to heritage through food also helps kids build perspective and resilience during difficult times, Fishel says.
“Family recipes show that we have this whole album of memories that predated the pandemic,” she says. “And we’ll have more after the pandemic.”
Fishel cites research that shows kids who know their family stories are more resilient and have a more positive outlook on the future. They also see that others struggled with the same things they do (like eating their vegetables). “I think that’s because when kids know their family stories, they feel a part of something bigger than themselves,” Fishel says. "And they have a sense that their lives can go a lot of different ways, not just the way their parents’ lives have gone."
Cooking as coping
Familial bonds are something Mēlani Douglass, who curated the new digital exhibition “Reclamation: Recipes, Remedies, and Rituals” at Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, tries to maintain by cooking with her nine-year-old daughter.
As a third-generation Black herbalist, Douglass is teaching her daughter how to use herbs in the kitchen. Also, she keeps a batch of a family favorite in her fridge: a kale and collard salad, so they have a healthy source of greens. Spending time in the kitchen and garden keeps her daughter close to her roots instead of getting lost in the idea that she has to be “IG ready,” Douglass says. And when she and her daughter cook together, they don’t limit themselves to the family recipe.
“We’re writing history right now,” Douglass says. “Every time you do a recipe—there is a part of it that becomes your own.”
Ferguson explains that, when families are cooking ancestral recipes together, focusing only on the technicalities of a recipe misses the point of connecting to their culture. The most important part is to get kids to participate and learn about their ancestry while cooking.
"Focus on the experience,” Ferguson suggests. “Talk about the sights, experiences, sounds—because all of that is culture and all of that will make a difference to the developing identity of children and the family.”
Aside from the long-term benefits of building identity, cooking family recipes can help create positive experiences during the pandemic, which can pay off now.
“Anytime that kids experience hardship, having a connection to family is what keeps it from being a trauma,” Fishel explains. That’s why rituals, like cooking an ancestral recipe together each week, can help give both children and adults a sense of stability and continuity during the pandemic, she adds.
Tips to make it happen
You don’t need to have all the ingredients or equipment to get started cooking ancestral recipes. Follow Douglass’s advice and make it your own. Here are some ways to get started:
Put it on the calendar. Make a heritage meal once a week, month, or season.
Bond virtually. Ask grandparents to share a meaningful recipe, Fishel says. Set up a virtual cooking competition between cousins.
Find ingredients from an ancestral country, or good substitutes. Look in local markets or shop online.
Make a mini spice rack just for kids, Douglass suggests. Include spices from a heritage country to connect them with their culture.
Teach children rituals that are related to family recipes. “A ritual has symbols and meaning,” Fishel explains, and that meaning creates a shared experience, even across generations.
Encourage questions while cooking: Where do you think the spices in this recipe come from? Do the words in this recipe remind you of a specific language, culture, or place?
Watch cooking shows that are specific to your family’s ethnic heritage, Ferguson advises. She and her kids watch a Caribbean cooking show to learn about Jamaican cuisine.
Create a DIY cookbook with special recipes, rituals, stories, and images of heritage meals and ingredients to capture your family’s history in the making.