Maybe you’ve been to a restaurant and noticed a dish on the menu that was always on your family’s festive table. Overwhelmed with nostalgia, you eagerly ordered it, only to be disappointed when it tasted nothing 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 English-sounding name, Williams is descended from Sicilians who flocked to the Crescent City in the late 1800s and early 1900s, attracted by plentiful jobs in the fruit and sugar cane industries.
Once they arrived, the newcomers began to adapt the recipes they had made in their home countries to the ingredients and customs they found on the Gulf Coast. Today, examples of their cuisine can be found all over New Orleans, especially in restaurants that specialize in dishes served with “red gravy,” the thick Sicilian version of tomato sauce.
You can find it in pasta sauce, as a topping on meatball po’boys and on New Orleans’ version of Chicken Parmesan. I learned how to make red gravy a few years ago in a class Williams gave at the Southern Food and Beverage 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 to anyone looking to record their family recipes.
Cooking with your elderly
During 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.”
Look for “the person closest to where they come from,” Williams says. If that is not possible, find someone who has learned from that ancestor. For example, I never met my grandmother, who came to the United States via Canada from Riga, Latvia. So my main frame of reference for family recipes was my mother rather than an earlier generation.
Don’t just sit down to watch them by the stove, jump in and join in. “You basically do it together and you learn all (their) techniques,” Williams says. As you go, write down the steps or record them in a voice app or video if your elder likes to be filmed. You may want to do more than one cooking session so you get the experience of making the dish, then spend time documenting the dish.
Prepare for spontaneity in the kitchen
People accustomed to following precise recipes may be surprised to find that their elders don’t cook that way, especially if they learned it from previous generations. While writing her cookbook, Williams realized that many of the books she admired were written by bakers, whose work resembles chemistry more than improvisation.
Rather than a precise mise-en-place, Williams’ ancestors had a broader point of view: use whatever was in the fridge that could improve the dish. “Nothing has been lost,” she said.
Her grandmother, she said, cut open a paper bag and placed it on her cutting board before chopping vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, or greengrocers. Then she threw all the pieces, even the smallest florets, into her bowl. The taste and texture of the dish often varied depending on which ingredients were in season and the proportions used.
“Few members of my family made a Creole Italian dish the same way,” Williams writes in her book.
In other parts of the country, stuffed vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes are often prepared with rice. But in New Orleans, the tradition of using breadcrumbs, from the baguette that is ubiquitous all over the city, often became the carb transporter for po’boys and a tool to suck up every bit of gumbo. “No one wanted to throw away bread,” Williams explains.
Williams says she aimed to write a cookbook that could live up to that kind of ingenuity, rather than forcing readers to follow a strict set of injunctions. “It’s not a rigid blueprint for anything, and I think most people who like to cook do too,” she says.
Measure your measurements
While they were both cooking, Williams often saw 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 size. “If you’ve ever sat with her, you should know it was that teacup,” Williams says. “It wasn’t three standard cups.”
If your eldest does something similarly quirky, Williams suggests measuring the volume of the vehicle and then translating it into standard measurements. However, it is best to do this subtly. Don’t try to suggest that they have done anything unusual or incorrect, as cooking can be very personal, especially when someone has been making a dish a certain way all their life.
That’s especially important if English is your elder’s second language. They may be baffled by American cooking techniques, seeing theirs not only as a comfort, but as a skill that gives them confidence. “When my grandmother served her family something familiar, she not only nourished but also soothed the longing for home and the difficulties of adapting 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 Sicilians. In addition to red gravy, there is another visible legacy of these immigrants: olive salad† It’s a key feature of a muffuletta, the big, hearty sandwich with cold cuts and cheese available at places like the Central Grocery.
Olive salad is a coarsely chopped mix 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 came. “The French and Spaniards brought us olives, but they didn’t mix green and black,” she says. The newcomers used broken olives that grocers would otherwise process into tapenade.
Williams’ book contains three versions of olive salad: from her grandmother, which is close to the salty, garlicky olive salad sold in convenience stores; her mother’s, which contains a whole lemon, peel and all; and her own, in which basil, artichokes, and fennel through the mix.
If you talk to your elder, you may find another dish that proudly introduces their culture to Americans. Then that can be a good starting point for your culinary conversation and cooking lessons.
Three Generation 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 cooked and quartered baby artichokes (fresh or frozen, see t.)ips below†
- 2 cups coarsely chopped green olives with pimiento
- 2 cups coarsely chopped pitted black olives
- 1 cup finely chopped celery
- 1 cup chopped raw carrot
- 1 cup finely chopped raw cauliflower (optional)
- 1 very thinly sliced lemon, including the rind (remove seeds)
- 1 bulb raw fennel, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 6 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano, or 4 tsp. dry
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped capers
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- salt (optional)
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves (optional)
In a large bowl, mix the anchovies with a tablespoon of olive oil until the anchovies are dissolved (add more olive oil if necessary). Combine all ingredients except the remaining olive oil.
Add enough olive oil to cover the mixture. Stir well so that the ingredients are evenly distributed. Leave for an hour and then taste. If it needs acid, add a little lemon juice. It probably won’t need extra salt because of the olives and anchovies, but add it if you like. At the end, before serving, add the optional basil leaves. The recipe makes about two quarts.
- The better the olives, the better they will taste. Try buying bulk olives instead of canned olives.
- Williams advises chefs to avoid canned artichokes, as this will change the texture of the salad. She prefers fresh. If using frozen, cook and cool them before slicing.
- Serve on a bun, or pile on salad greens. It can also be used to stuff tomatoes, or layered with tomato slices as a side dish.