Perhaps you were in a restaurant and spotted a dish on the menu that was always on your family’s holiday table. Filled with nostalgia, you eagerly ordered it, only to be disappointed when it didn’t taste like your grandmother made it. Liz Williams has a tip for you: take lessons from your elders while you still can.
Williams is the author of the new cookbook, Nana’s Creole Italian Table: Recipes and Stories from Sicilian New Orleans. Despite her Anglo-sounding name, Williams is descended from Sicilians who flocked to the Crescent City in the late 18th and early 20th centuries, attracted by the abundant fruit and sugar cane industry jobs.
Upon arrival, the newcomers began adapting 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, particularly in restaurants that specialize in dishes served with “red sauce,” the thick Sicilian version of tomato sauce.
You’ll find it as a pasta sauce, as a topping on po’boys with meatballs, and on New Orleans’ version of chicken parmesan. I took a class on how to make red sauce a few years ago that Williams took at the Southern Food and Beverage Museumwhich she founded. Like her tutorials, Williams’ new cookbook features stories and how-to guides on how to replicate the recipes she grew up with, and offers advice for anyone wanting to record their family recipes.
Cook with your elders
At a presentation sponsored by Gambit, the local news magazine, William shared her top tip: “Cook with the oldest member of your family,” she says. “When they’re gone, it’s too late.”
Find “the person closest to where they came from,” says Williams. If that’s not possible, find someone who learned from that ancestor. For example, I 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 an earlier generation.
Also, don’t just sit and watch them at the stove, jump in and join in. “Actually, you do it together and you learn all of[their]techniques,” says Williams. As you do this, write down the steps or record them in a voice app or video if your older partner is comfortable with being filmed. You may want to hold more than one cooking session so you can have the experience of preparing the dish and then spend time documenting the dish.
Prepare for spontaneity in the kitchen
People who are used to following exact recipes may be surprised that their parents don’t cook like this, especially if they learned from previous generations. In writing her cookbook, Williams realized that many of the books she admired were written by bakers whose work resembled chemistry more than improvisation.
Instead of an exact mise en place, Williams’ ancestors had a broader view: use whatever was in the fridge to elevate the dish. “Nothing was lost,” she said.
Her grandmother, she said, would slit open a paper bag and place it on her cutting board before picking vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, or greens. Then she poured all the pieces, even the smallest florets, into her bowl. The taste and texture of the dish often varies depending on which ingredients are in season and the proportions used.
“Few members of my family have prepared a Creole Italian dish the same way,” says Williams writes in her book.
In other parts of the country, stuffed vegetables like peppers and tomatoes are often prepared with rice. But in New Orleans, it’s become a tradition to use breadcrumbs from the French bread that’s ubiquitous around town, often as a carb booster for po’boys as well as a tool to suck up every chunk of gumbo. “Nobody wanted to throw bread away,” explains Williams.
Williams says she strived to write a cookbook that catered to that kind of ingenuity rather than forcing readers to follow a strict set of directions. “It’s not a rigid blueprint for something, and I think most people who love to cook pretty much do that,” she says.
Take your measurements
While the two were cooking, Williams would often watch her grandmother measuring ingredients with a broken teacup with a missing handle. Though she called it a cup, it wasn’t exactly the standard eight-ounce measurement. “If you’ve ever sat with her, you had to know that it was that teacup,” says Williams. “It wasn’t three standard cups.”
If your eldest does something similarly idiosyncratic, Williams suggests measuring the volume of the promotion and then translating it into standard measurements. However, it’s best to do this subtly. Don’t try to imply that they did something unusual or wrong, because cooking can be very personal, especially when someone has prepared a dish a certain way their whole life.
This is especially important if English is your parent’s second language. They may have been confused by American cooking techniques and see their own not just as a comfort but as a skill that gives them confidence. “When my grandmother served something familiar to her family, she not only nourished but also eased longing for home and the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture and language,” Williams writes.
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. Besides the red sauce, there is another visible legacy of these immigrants: olive salad. It’s a key feature on a muffuletta, the large, hearty sandwich made with cold cuts and cheese available at places like Central Grocery.
Olive salad is a coarsely chopped mixture of green and black olives, capers, pickles, onions, vinegar, oil, and spices. But Williams says it wasn’t part of New Orleans cuisine until the Sicilians came. “The French and Spanish brought us olives, but they didn’t mix green and black,” she says. The newcomers used broken olives, which grocers otherwise made into tapenade.
Williams’ book has three versions of olive salad: her grandmother, which approximates the salty, garlicky olive salad sold in corner shops; her mother’s, which includes a whole lemon, peel and all; and her own, the basil, artichokes, and fennel to the mixture.
If you talk to your parents, you might find another such dish that their culture is proud to introduce to Americans. Then this could be a good starting point for your culinary talk and cooking classes.
Three generations olive salad recipe
Out of 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 baby artichokes, cooked and quartered (fresh or frozen, see tips below)
- 2 cups roughly chopped green olives with pimiento
- 2 cups coarsely chopped pitted black olives
- 1 cup finely chopped celery
- 1 cup finely chopped raw carrot
- 1 cup finely chopped raw cauliflower (optional)
- 1 very thinly sliced lemon, including the peel (remove the stone)
- 1 bulb of raw fennel, thinly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 6dE.g. chopped fresh oregano or 4 tsp. dried
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped capers
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- salt (optional)
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves (optional)
In a large bowl, toss the anchovies with a tablespoon of olive oil until the anchovies are dissolved (add a little more olive oil if needed). Mix all ingredients except for the remaining olive oil.
Add enough olive oil to cover the mixture. Stir well to distribute the ingredients evenly. Leave to rest for an hour, then taste. If it needs acidity, add some lemon juice. It probably doesn’t need extra salt because of the olives and anchovies, but add it if you like. Add the optional basil leaves at the end before serving. The recipe yields about two liters.
- The higher the quality of the olives, the better they taste. Try to buy olives in bulk rather than canned ones.
- Williams advises cooks to avoid canned artichokes, which alter the texture of the salad. She prefers fresh. If using frozen ones, cook and cool before slicing.
- Serve on a sandwich or stack on lettuce leaves. It can also be used to stuff tomatoes or as a side dish with tomato slices.