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Food That Unlocks Your Memory

Cookbook author Lora Brody urges people to preserve their family's culinary heritage

WHETHER it's Mom's apple pie, your hometown diner's tuna melt, or cherry-flavored PEZ, certain foods undoubtedly bring back the comforts of childhood. Lora Brody knows this well. As author of ``Cooking With Memories'' (New York: Penguin Books) she talks about food in conjunction with her recollections of past events and traditions.

``When I was a kid, we used to go down to the beach and have a hot-fudge sundae with ginger ice cream,'' Ms. Brody says in an interview here. ``Now when I have one - only a paper cup will do - instantly, I'm 10 years old with sunburn on my shoulders and sand in my shorts.''

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Such nostalgic experiences hold wonderful satisfaction, says the witty author, who also wrote ``Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet.'' She fondly recalls what one of her three sons said once when he returned from college: ``It smells good to be home.''

When you ask people: ``What would you rescue if there were a fire?'' says Brody, ``many will say `the family, the dog, photo albums ... and the recipe box.'''

Of those who seek advice from Brody about preserving their recipes, most have ``a sense that they have a job to do. It's a connection within a family,'' she says. ``It can be the basis for family reunions. It can be a self-perpetuating thing ... where every year there's a set [of recipes] that will eventually make a whole family archive.''

She wrote ``Cooking With Memories'' ``as a gift to my boys,'' she explains, adding that it's a Jewish tradition for the mother to take charge of her children's education. Family history is part of that education, she says.

Recipe keepsakes strengthen family ties, says Barry Bluestein, co-owner of Season to Taste Books Ltd. in Chicago. He sees a trend in people going ``back to their roots and looking for some connection, some grounding. People want to preserve memories, but they're also looking for memories,'' he continues. ``Even myself - my grandfather was a baker - I find myself calling my mother to ask: `Do you have this recipe?'''

Mr. Bluestein says a fair number of customers walk into his store and say something like ``My grandmother used to make this Swedish cookie ...'' then ask where to find a recipe for it. It's always something sweet, he notes - a pastry, cookie, or danish, perhaps. ``No one ever comes in and says ``My grandmother used to make this chicken ...'''

Thirty or forty years ago, children were taught to cook by their parents, Bluestein theorizes. But nowadays, ``most people were not taught by their parents, and it is those people looking for recipes they remember their grandmother made.''

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`ALL this talk of the reopening of the Ellis Island and making it into a museum makes a time for people to think of their ancestors and family history,'' says Irena Chalmers, author of ``Good Old Food'' (Hauppague, N.Y.: Barron).

``I think it makes a recipe come alive when you know it does have meaning to somebody,'' says Ms. Chalmers. ``The reminiscences are important,'' she says, referring to the stories that accompany recipes in her book.

Holidays almost always include celebrations with food, and it follows that people associate food with those memories. In her book, Brody includes this account of a childhood Thanksgiving:

``The center of the table held a turkey/pumpkin/Pilgrim motif made, usually by me, out of bits and pieces of construction paper..., accumulated chestnuts, acorns, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks.

``Large dried gobs of Elmer's glue and designs drawn with stubs of fat brown and orange Crayola crayons completed the effort. One year I made Pilgrim collars for everyone to wear. My Aunt Rose was the only one who was a good enough sport to wear it but accidentally set hers on fire as she was making the gravy for the turkey.''

Holidays are also times when people may consider giving family recipe books for gifts. ``Don't wait. You should start collecting right away,'' Brody urges.

Such a project can present a bowl-full of challenges. Unlike the old days, recipes aren't handed down by word of mouth anymore. ``When Auntie Em dies with the recipe of strudel,'' says Brody, the recipe becomes extinct. ``Oral history doesn't do it anymore.'' So, people need to record, preserve, and organize their family recipes.

``My grandmother made all her own bread without recipes,'' says Brody. If you're in a similar situation, ``I would immediately invite myself over and watch that person do it,'' she says. If the cook is about to throw in a ``sprinkle of cinnamon,'' grab that person's arm and measure the cinnamon, she says. Note such things as the oven temperature and pan size. Take meticulous notes.

Then there are the recipes that are written down, but require some decoding, translating, and even research.

When Carolyn Sloat, director of publications for Old Sturbridge Village (a ``living museum'' in Sturbridge, Mass.) wanted to update 19th-century recipes for a cookbook, many of the recipes were from ``The American Frugal Housewife,'' written in 1828 by Lydia Maria Child.

``Even if she used measures, they aren't the standard measures today,'' says Ms. Sloat in a phone interview. For example, if a recipe called for a ``teacup of water,'' how much is a teacup?

Sloat ended up having to find an antique teacup and translate the amount for modern-day cooks - 3/4 cup.

`IF [a recipe] is written down, separate all ingredients and separate all steps,'' advises Brody. ``If Aunt Alice's strudel called for `apples' but you don't know what kind of apples to use, call up a farm stand and say `I'm making strudel and what should I use?''' she continues.

``A lot of it is trial and error,'' Brody says. But it helps to ``first spend a few minutes meditating - the way it looked and the way it tasted and write it down. Assemble the memory of it first.'' Then apply modern-day techniques. If the recipe says ``moderate oven,'' try 350 degrees F. If it's a cake, you know to bake it in the middle of the oven. Also, she says, ``we tend to use much less salt, so make that an option.''

When you're ready to put everything together, consider how you want the recipes presented. ``There are two aspects about writing about food,'' says Brody:

The feelings associated with it - the emotion

The recipe's formula - something anyone can follow.

As for recording the emotional flavor, Brody encourages people to tell stories: ``Put it in a language that is easy to read, not pretentious,'' she says. Recipes and remembrances can be catalogued by computer, note card, or in a durable binder, such as ``The Family Heirloom Cookbook,'' recently published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Part recipe file, part scrapbook, the book is designed to help people organize their memories and recipes; there's even a section for photographs.

Beside preserving the recipes, ``the reward for all this work is that when your head and mouth coincide, there are fireworks,'' says Brody. ``Your memory is confirmed in your mouth and wow!''

Cookbook author Lora Brody was incorrectly identified as Jane Brody on Page 1 of the Sept. 19 Monitor.

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