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Cooking with Family Heirlooms

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As her friends and relatives will tell you, Andrea Finestrauss, who lives in Hockessin, loves food and loves to cook. and there is one traditional family dish that is special to her when it comes to the holidays.

“Chicken soup—my chicken soup,” she readily replies. “I use it for every holiday. Chicken soup is something that comes from your grandmother, but also from your aunt, your mother. It evolves with a little something from everyone, yet it stays the same.” Finestrauss adds, “I’m in contact with women from my synagogue, and we try their soups and mine.”

And her chicken soup is hearty chicken soup—not a wimpy broth—with lots of vegetables.

The winter holidays, both secular and religious, are the times when families gather together for a huge meal, and these are the times when family recipes, whether written down or just remembered, are passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes there are grim or funny family stories
behind the recipes, and generally the recipes also refl ect the culture of ancestors raised in other countries.

Finestrauss remembers as a young girl going on family outings to a farm in New Jersey to purchase chickens that always found their way into the dinner pot. Today, she says, a girlfriend raises  chickens that are the basis for her soup. “I also remember as a child, my father would bring home hot jars of many types of soup my grandmother would make for us,” she says. “And that would be dinner. Always a surprise, and always wonderful.”

Anthony Ianni’s mother, Mary Bagnato Ianni, lives in Landenberg, but she was born in Calabria at the toe of Italy’s peninsula and came to America as a young girl. As a result, Anthony says there are several dishes with Calabrian infl uences that he has been eating during the holidays since childhood, especially during the Feast of the Seven Fishes—Festa dei Sette Pesci—on Christmas Eve. So he decided to preserve the recipes. “Mom didn’t have copies, as they are in her head,” he says. “It’s actually a good thing to write it down!”

One recipe is for grispelle, a traditional Calibrese Christmas dish, often called an Italian donut, which can be sweet or savory and which can be made into an “O” or rolled into a stick shape. The Iannis do the savory version with imbedded anchovies. “It was all my mother ever made,” Mary Ianni says, “but I waited until she was ill before I got her to show me how. I wish I had learned more.”

Like Mary Ianni’s mother, mine didn’t write down the recipes. Why would you? Your mother taught you as a child in the kitchen, and pretty soon you had it memorized.

And that’s the way I fi rst learned to cook and bake everything. Except for mom’s applesauce cake, crammed full of raisins and walnuts and on the table every Christmas. I used to watch her make it in a wood-burning stove on our small farm in West Virginia, but for some reason I never made it myself.

And if I or one of my three brothers couldn’t make it home for the holidays, mom’s applesauce cake magically appeared in a brown box by U.S. mail wherever we were living at the time, wrapped fi rst in cellophane, then aluminum wrap, then a few pages of the Charleston Gazette in case we wanted to read what was happening back home as we ate cake with coffee.

Fortunately, someone in the family talked her into putting her recipes together before she died some years ago. My niece has come the closest to replicating the taste of mom’s applesauce cake, but, if she teaches her children how to make the cake, it will naturally be a little different than mom’s.

That’s the thing about family recipes passed down from generation to generation to re-appear each year on holiday tables. As Andrea Finestrauss says, they evolve, yet they stay the same.

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