Memories of Food and Love

“You know, the act of feeding someone is the ultimate act of care and affection…sharing yourself with someone else through food. Think about it. We are fed in the Eucharist, by our mothers when we are infants, by our parents as children, by friends at dinner parties…” ― Sylvain Reynard, Gabriel’s Inferno

When I chose this quote, I thought of my ancestors from whom I have learned many things about cooking and entertaining. When I think about my earliest food memory, it’s less about the first thing I ate and more about the legacies that have been passed down to me from my ancestors through food.  Culinary school taught me technique, but my ancestors taught me about the heart and soul of cooking.  From my great-grandparents to my parents, there are several people in my family who have taught me lessons in food that I carry with me today.

My Parents

The lessons I’ve learned from my mother go far beyond recipes.  She was a great cook and an amazing hostess. She taught me not only how to make good food, but the importance of aesthetics.  From her, I learned how to make food that was colorful, tasted great and presented well. She’d pour her heart and soul into the preparation, the table setting and all of the details that helped make a meal spectacular.  These lessons instilled by my mother at a young age are at the core of the memorable food experiences that we create at Heartfelt Catering each and every day.

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My father was known for his buttermilk cornbread, a staple side item for most of his dinners. At Heartfelt Catering, the base cornbread recipe that we use originates from my father. When you think about the history of something as simple as cornbread, I can almost envision the many generations ahead of me making it the same way and with the same labor of love.

My Grandparents

When I was a child, my grandfather canned vegetables and fruit preserves. As was commonplace for many people of that time, he didn’t keep any written recipes of his process or a list of the spices he used.  Today, I’m left with only a vivid memory of what those items tasted like, especially his plum preserves. Imagine biting into a super ripe plum…just add a bit of spices and that’s what my grandfather’s plum preserves tasted like.  He left the plum pits in the preserves so it wasn’t uncommon to come across one as you were spooning them on to buttered toast. Of course, I’ve attempted to recreate his plum preserves, and my brother (who also has a clear recollection of the plum preserves) said it was close, but not the same.  The lasting memory of food is pretty powerful.

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During the holidays, my grandmother would make a spiced tea that everyone raved about. I loved hearing those stories so I created a sweet tea with cloves and other spices that I think she would have enjoyed. It’s soothing to the body and the soul.  My grandmother adored complex spices and the gingerbread we make at Heartfelt Catering is inspired by hers — served with a lemon glaze and always ready for company to enjoy. I’ve simplified our recipe and we serve it as a breakfast bread for our afternoon tea and shower clients.  Each time we bake the gingerbread, its aroma sends me back to my grandmother’s kitchen.

My Great-Grandmother

A story my aunt used to tell me was about my great-grandmother who would bake cakes from scratch. Without the modern conveniences of electric mixers, everything was done by hand with a wooden spoon. If you’ve ever tried creaming sugar and butter by hand, you know how difficult that can be, especially after adding in the dry ingredients and the liquid — the batter gets more difficult to mix as more ingredients are added.  

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A year or so ago, I made a pound cake by hand. It wasn’t to channel my great-grandmother’s style, but rather to use only what was needed for a client. I made it through the process of creaming the sugar and egg just fine. It wasn’t until I started adding the dry and liquid ingredients that the mixing became more challenging. I smiled to myself as I recalled the story my aunt told me about making cakes by hand. I must say, this was one of the best tasting cakes I’d ever made. The strong connection to the food and the process of incorporating every ingredient to make it blend well shows how our hearts and souls go into the food we prepare.

I recently taught a baking class with a group of children and asked them if they were willing to use the creaming method and make the cake by hand instead of using a stand mixer. To my delight, they were open to this idea and had a great time through the process. No complaints, just smiles, comments and switching off with their teammates when it got difficult.  To think that I’ve transferred a food memory from my great-grandmother into a new one for these children — it was a full circle moment.

Food elicits memories for all of us.  A smell or a taste can trigger a memory that we haven’t thought about in years.  At Heartfelt Catering, we often get calls from clients years after an event asking about a particular dish that we served and it’s the highest compliment.  In a world of fast, packaged and processed foods, it’s comforting to remember the times when artisanal foods was the standard.  I think we’re coming back to that way of preparing food.  I know we do at Heartfelt Catering where our food is made from scratch every day.  It’s all about fresh, simple, soulful — just as my ancestors would have liked it.

Cecelia Hamilton