Creating Memories Through Family Recipes


In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust uses the shell-shaped French cake called the “Madeleine” as an example of involuntary memory—for Proust, tasting the cake triggered a memory without intellectual effort.  As he wrote,

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. . . . And suddenly the memory revealed itself. . . .”

My “madeleine,” or memory trigger, was revealed to me as a cousin described how her father had made her crepes for dessert. I wrote back how I remembered when my French grandmother—her great grandmother—used to make crepes for me. No special pan or fancy recipe—just flour, milk and eggs beat to just the right consistency to spread in a small frying pan to a thin sheet that slid off the pan onto a plate. No fancy fillings either—we did not add brandy and light them on fire like you might find in a fancy restaurant. We just added sugar, and then folded them in quarters before biting in.

I used to pretend that the crepes were like a round piece of paper you would fold into quarters and then cut out shapes to make a snowflake. I would take small, careful bites along the sides and at the tip, then open the crepe to see what pattern I had created. Of course, the sugar would then fall out, but it didn’t seem to matter. I just refolded the snowflake and ate it quickly, knowing the next was on its way.

My mother also made crepes for me—of course, using the same recipe that her mother had used—the one that had no measurements—just ingredients mixed together by feel. My mother would say, “I don’t measure anything—I just know what it is supposed to look like.” Crepes were a special treat—I associate eating them with cold, snowy days when I had come home from playing, taking off my boots, eager to get warm, sometimes even sitting by the heat vent.

When I was old enough to make them myself, I decided I had had enough of the recipe with no measurements and made my mother show me exactly how much flour, milk and eggs she put in so I could document the recipe. My children weren’t as enamored with the dessert as I had been, but I didn’t care—I just ate them myself.

I wonder how long this recipe will be passed down and what memories it will trigger in future generations. Maybe the crepes will be replaced with something new—like the dumplings my children seem to prefer from their Chinese grandmother.

It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Madeleine, a crepe or a dumpling.  It’s the memory that counts.

My grandmother’s crepe recipe:

Put 1 cup of flour in a bowl. Add 1½ cups milk slowly and mix with whisk to keep the mixture smooth. Add 2 eggs and 2 Tbsp. melted butter. Grease small frying pan or crepe pan with just a small amount of butter (or cooking spray for a modern touch). Don’t use oil to grease the pan—the crepe batter won’t spread—and turn heat to medium to medium-high. Pour in about ¼ cup batter (depending on the size of the pan) and rotate the pan to cover the bottom with a thin layer of batter. Cook just 1-2 minutes on each side until lightly browned. I discard the first crepe because it doesn’t seem to cook evenly and falls apart. Sprinkle crepes with confectioner’s sugar and fold or roll. Eat right away while hot! Makes about 8 crepes.

~APH: Life, Story, People~

About today’s contributor: Dani Schor is a rare Washington, D.C. native. She looks forward to welcoming her colleagues to her city for Capital Reflections, the annual international conference of the Association of Personal Historians, November 8-12, 2013. Dani’s personal history business is Personal Story Keeper. She has more than twenty-five years of writing and public affairs experience. 

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5 Responses to Creating Memories Through Family Recipes

  1. Annie Payne says:

    Thank you Dani, for such a warmly evocative article. Food and especially family food is one of the best memory triggers to help people remember family life.
    I am running a workshop next month during South Australia’s history month ‘About Time’, which I have called ‘Saving Lives – One Family Recipe at a Time’. All attendees will bring along a couple of family recipes and corresponding photos, write their memory about that dish and we’ll upload the lot into a Blurb recipe book template and print off a copy for each person. They can then produce their own heritage book of family recipes.

  2. Tara says:

    I have been trying to get people to do this type of project for years! Excellent post.

  3. Pat McNees says:

    Please make crepes for our next DC chapter meeting! I never ate them as a child but I loved them as soon as I tasted them! Food evokes memories SO strongly. My mother used to make “fried dough” (kind of like Indian fry bread), which we put butter and sugar on. I can smell it from blocks away when it’s offered in places like Boston’s Harborplace, where its smell takes me right back to childhood. Not as delicate as crepes, but in the same basic food group.

  4. Sam says:

    Dani,

    Thank you for this article. I can almost taste the crepes myself!

    I’m beginning a recipe-based family history book with a new client next week. I’ll pass this along to her for inspiration!

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