Maybe you’ve been to a restaurant and noticed a dish on the menu that was always on your family’s holiday table. Flooded with nostalgia, you eagerly ordered it, only to be disappointed when she didn’t know at all how your grandmother made it. Liz Williams has a tip for you: Take lessons from your elders while you can.
Williams is the author of the new cookbook, Nana’s Creole Italian table: recipes and stories from Sicilian New Orleans. Despite its Anglo-Saxon sounding name, Williams is descended from Sicilians who flocked to Crescent City in the late 1800s and early 1900s, attracted to numerous jobs in the fruit and sugar cane industries.
Once arrived, the newcomers began to adapt the recipes they had prepared in their homeland to the ingredients and customs they found on the Gulf coast. Today, examples of their cuisine can be found throughout New Orleans, especially in restaurants that specialize in dishes served with “red sauce,” the thick Sicilian version of tomato sauce.
You can find it as a topping for pasta, as a topping on meatball po’boys and the New Orleans version of chicken parmesan. I learned how to make red gravy a few years ago in a course that Williams taught at Southern Food and Drink Museum, which she founded. Like her tutorials, Williams’ new cookbook offers stories and instructions on how to replicate the recipes she grew up with and offers advice for anyone who wants to capture their own family recipes.
Cook with your elders
In a presentation sponsored by Gambit, the local news magazine, William shared his number one tip: “Cook with the oldest member of your family,” he says. “Once they’re gone, it’s too late.”
Look for “the closest person to where they come from,” Williams says. If that’s not possible, he finds someone he learned from that ancestor. For example, I have never met my grandmother, who came to the United States from Riga, Latvia, via Canada. So, my main frame of reference for family recipes was my mother rather than a previous generation.
Don’t just sit back and watch them in the stove, instead, jump in and join in. “You’re doing it together and learning all (their) techniques,” says Williams. As you go, he jots down the steps or records them on a voice app or video, if your senior feels comfortable getting filmed. You may want to hold more than one cooking session, so you get the experience of preparing the dish and then spend some time documenting the dish.
Get ready for spontaneity in the kitchen
People who are used to following precise recipes may be surprised to find that their elders don’t cook that way, especially if they have learned from previous generations. While writing his own cookbook, Williams realized that many of the books she admired were written by bakers, whose work is more like chemistry than improvisation.
Rather than a precise mise en place, Williams’ ancestors had a broader point of view: using what was in the fridge to enhance the dish. “Nothing went to waste,” he said.
Her grandmother, she said, opened a paper bag and set it on the cutting board before cutting vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, or green. Then, she dumped all the pieces, even the smallest flowers, into her plate. The flavor and texture of the dish it often varies, depending on the seasonal ingredients and the proportions that were used.
“Few members of my family have prepared an Italian Creole dish in the same way,” Williams he writes in his book.
In other parts of the country, stuffed vegetables like peppers and tomatoes are often made with rice. But in New Orleans, the tradition has become the use of bread crumbs, from French bread that is ubiquitous in the city, often as a carbohydrate carrier for po’boys and as a tool for soaking every bit of gumbo. “Nobody wanted to throw the bread away,” Williams explains.
Williams says she strove to write a cookbook that could accommodate that kind of wit rather than force readers to follow a strict set of orders. “It’s not a rigid blueprint for anything, and I think most people who like to cook basically do it,” she says.
Measure your measurements
While the two were cooking, Williams often watched her grandmother measure ingredients with a broken teacup with a missing handle. Although he called it a cup, it wasn’t exactly the standard eight-ounce size. “If you’ve ever sat with her, you should have known it was that teacup,” says Williams. “It wasn’t three standard cups.”
If your senior does something similar, Williams suggests measuring the volume of the vehicle, then translating it into standard measurements. It’s best to do it subtly, though. He tries not to imply that they have done something unusual or incorrect, because cooking can be very personal, especially when someone has been preparing a dish in a particular way for their entire life.
This is especially important if English is your senior’s second language. They may have been bewildered by American cooking techniques and see their own as not just a comfort, but a skill that gives them confidence. “When my grandmother served her family something familiar, she not only nurtured her, but she eased the longing for home and the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture and language,” writes Williams.
Find recipe variations that honor the original
New Orleans is better known for its French and even Spanish heritage than for the role played by the Sicilians. Along with the red gravy, there is another visible legacy brought by these immigrants: olive salad. It’s a staple feature of a muffuletta, the large, hearty charcuterie and cheese sandwich available at places like Central Grocery.
The olive salad is a coarsely chopped blend of green and black olives, capers, pickled vegetables, onion, vinegar, oil and spices. But Williams says it wasn’t part of New Orleans cuisine until the Sicilians arrived. “The French and the Spaniards brought us the olives, but they didn’t mix green and black,” he says. The newcomers used broken olives that the grocers otherwise turned into tapenade.
Williams’ book has three versions of the olive salad: of his grandmother, which is close to the salty olive salad and garlic sold in the corner shops; that of her mother, which includes a whole lemon, peel and all; and her, who introduces basil, artichokes, and fennel to the mixture.
By talking to your senior, you may find another such dish that their culture is proud to present to Americans. If so, it could be a good starting point for your culinary conversation and cooking class.
Three Generations Olive Salad Recipe
From Nana’s Creole Italian table: recipes and stories from Sicilian New Orleans by Elizabeth M. Williams
- 1 anchovy fillet
- 1 1/2 cups fruity olive oil
- 10 new artichokes boiled and quartered (fresh or frozen, see tip below)
- 2 cups coarsely chopped green olives with pimiento
- 2 cups coarsely chopped pitted black olives
- 1 cup finely sliced celery
- 1 cup finely sliced raw carrot
- 1 cup finely chopped raw cauliflower (optional)
- 1 lemon, sliced very very thin, including the peel (remove the seeds)
- 1 raw fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 6 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano or 4 tsp. dried
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped capers
- fresh ground pepper to taste
- salt (optional)
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves (optional)
In a large bowl, combine the anchovy with a tablespoon of olive oil until the anchovy has melted (add more olive oil if necessary). Combine all ingredients except the remaining olive oil.
Add enough olive oil to cover the mixture. Mix well so that the ingredients are evenly distributed. Let it rest for an hour, then taste. If it needs acidity, add a little lemon juice. Because of the olives and anchovies, it probably won’t need any additional salt, but add it if you like. Add optional basil leaves at the end before serving. The recipe makes about two quarters.
- The better the quality of the olives, the better the flavor. Try buying olives in bulk rather than canned.
- Williams advises cooks to avoid canned artichokes, which alter the texture of the salad. He prefers fresh ones. If you use frozen, boil them and let them cool before chopping.
- Serve on a sandwich or stack on salad. It can also be used to stuff tomatoes or layered with tomato slices as a side dish.