My most valuable possession? My grandmother’s recipe book

I am lucky. 

I am lucky to come from a land with so much history and so many traditions (each of which is tied to family and food). In Bulgaria, nearly everything revolves around food. So, when there is reason to celebrate, you cook up a feast, lay out your finest china, and welcome your loved ones to gather around the table… for hours and hours. 

Food plays such an important role in our culture, that most days of the year can be associated with a particular dish. On Christmas Eve, Bulgarian families prepare 12 different foods, including beans, bread, stuffed peppers and cabbage leaves, pumpkin banitsa, and more. On Easter and Saint George’s Day, we eat lamb. And, on Saint Nicholas’ Day, we queue up to purchase fresh fish (the scales of which you can find in the wallets of all Bulgarians as we believe they can bring us money).

I can go on and on, but the list of days and foods does not end.

Considering this, you can imagine just how important it is to be able to cook. But, growing up, I had no idea…

Having a mother and a grandmother who were magicians in the kitchen, I was used to homemade food that was always delicious and always made with love. I remember running around the kitchen as a little girl, watching my mother and my grandmother read from leather recipe books, the pages of which were stained with eggs, flour, milk, butter, and various other ingredients. And, in these pages, lay the wisdom of generations of women… 

At the time, I almost thought of these leather notebooks as a sort of family heirloom that would get passed down to me when I am old enough. The only problem is that I also seemed to believe that I would magically inherit the ability to cook these dishes, some of which would take hours (and sometimes days) to prepare. 

When I grew a little older, I had no interest in cooking. Truthfully, I almost rebelled against it as a teenager, believing that if I were to spend hours in the kitchen, I would be conforming to gender norms that I did not believe should be promoted. 

Now, a little older, I see this with new eyes. A few years ago, my grandmother spent months filling out four notebooks with all of our family recipes. She then gave these to her three granddaughters and her grandson. Her thinking was that maybe one day, we would see the value in its contents. 

And today, I do. 

I do not see cooking these recipes as something anti-feminist or patriarchal. No, it is the opposite. Because of them, I feel connected to every woman who came before me: my mother, my grandmother, my grandmother’s sisters, my great-grandmother, and her mother too. Over the years, each of these women made her own improvements and additions to the family recipes, perfecting them over time. 

Not only does this recipe book now keep me connected to these women, but it also makes me feel connected to my culture and my home. When my heart aches for Bulgarian air and earth, I know I can open my grandmother’s recipe book, touch the pages carrying her handwriting and the knowledge of my ancestors.

To me, this recipe book allows me to turn any place into ‘home’, even when I am thousands of miles away from it. In simply opening this book, I can smell the scent of home-cooked food, I can hear the voices of my loved ones, and I can feel the support of the women who came before me.

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