Ever since Oldways’ inception in 1990, we have worked tirelessly to preserve, uphold, and celebrate traditional foods and lifestyles from around the world. Tradition has served as both our inspiration and our motivation. You can imagine our intrigue when we heard about a new website with a similar goal — to share and document traditional recipes from elders around the world.
Cooking with Grandmothers is a new project from Jessica Theroux, documentarian and author of the award-winning cookbook, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. To call Theroux’s acclaimed Cooking with Italian Grandmothers a cookbook, though, merely brushes the surface — for it’s a cross between a cookbook and travel journal, its pages peppered with gorgeous photography (taken by Theroux herself).
After spending a year traveling the Italian countryside to collect the stories and traditions from 12 Italian grandmothers, all of whom shared a full menu’s worth of recipes, Theroux realized her Cooking with Italian Grandmothers book was just the beginning. She decided to continue documenting these elder stories, expanding it to stories from around the globe — and opening it up so people around the world can submit their own grandmother stories, recipes, and traditions.
According to Theroux, “The site is really about showcasing and celebrating the diversity of wonderful older women out there, from all walks of life, all over the globe.” That sounded right up our alley, so we chatted with Theroux just prior to the site’s launch on September 11. Check out our Q&A below — plus a bonus recipe for wine-soaked strawberries (pictured below) — and ﬁnd out how you can contribute your own grandmother’s narrative and recipes to this vibrant project.
Ashley Owen, Oldways PR & Media Manager
Oldways: What is your background in cooking?
Jessica Theroux: When I was nine years old, I developed acute digestive troubles and had to change my diet to be entirely whole foods based. We used to joke in my family that my mom is good with a microwave, and my dad with a toaster oven. So, at that early age, I became the cook of the family and fascinated with how to make healthy food taste great. Years later that same interest led me to take a year oﬀ from Brown University to do the chef’s training at The Natural Gourmet Institute, in New York City — a culinary program that focuses on health-supportive cooking.
OW: What was the inspiration for your Cooking with Italian Grandmothers cookbook?
JT: When I graduated from Brown, I was awarded the Arnold Fellowship to spend a year making ﬁlms about food traditions in Italy; my ﬁrst ﬁlms, and IACP Award winning book, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, were based on that experience.
I had chosen Italy as because of its long history of maintaining a strong local foods culture, and its love of the table as a daily, delicious gathering place. The Italian grandmothers are the obvious keepers of these traditions and these pleasures. No doubt all of this was inﬂuenced by relationship with my paternal grandmother, Honey, as being the most an immensely powerful and loving inﬂuence in my childhood. It was largely because of our relationship that I saw how just how much the older generation has to oﬀer.
OW: What made you decide to extend the cookbook concept into a global collection of recipes and stories? Why do these stories and recipes need to be preserved?
JT: First, we are in a moment when time-honored food traditions are disappearing; the generation that is over 70 are still practicing these old food ways, and are our last bridge to those types of cooking, foraging, and land-based wisdom. Now is the moment to be recording them, their recipes, and food skills for the beneﬁt and enjoyment of future generations.
Second, I wanted to create a place for people to celebrate the older women in their lives. I truly believe that female elders are some of the most powerful people on the planet, and that they are largely under-noticed. Their strength lies in not only the years of practice they have in rolling pie dough and caring for others, but in the depth and wisdom that comes from having gone through life’s joys and sorrows. I really wanted to build a place online for people to share the best of the memories, recipes, photographs, and life learnings they have from the older women in their lives. People are able to do that on the Add your Elders page, which also ties into the Cooking with Grandmothers Facebook and Instagram pages.
OW: What is it about including personal narratives along with the recipes that makes the food more compelling?
JT: On some level, food is always happening within a larger context of relationship. So, when we know the farmers growing it or the people cooking it for us, it just tastes and feels better. Cooking with Grandmothers does just that — it shows cooking within a highly personal context, [and shares] those recipes and techniques that [each] woman has practiced and made for her family over decades.
OW: What has been the most rewarding part of this project? The most challenging?
JT: The most rewarding part has been sharing and celebrating the stories and lives of women that would otherwise go unseen. One striking example of this is Armida from Lunigiana, Italy (pictured right). She spent her whole life as a sharecropper, living in a one-room house. Having her cooking recorded and shared with an international audience made her feel special in a way I don’t think she previously even knew was possible. She was moved to joy and tears by it.
The most challenging part has deﬁnitely been juggling all the diﬀerent hats I wear when I am cooking with and recording a woman — taking photographs, recording videos, often talking in another language, creating recipes from their “by feel” way of cooking, helping to prepare the meal, and maintaining an atmosphere of highly attentive listening and care so they feel comfortable sharing openly about their life during the process — all at the same time!
OW: What do you hope people will take away from Cooking with Grandmothers?
JT: My main hope is that people feel inspired to connect with the older women in their own lives, cooking with them, asking about what they have learned in their lives, listening to their stories. It would be lovely if they felt moved to share what they discover with Cooking with Grandmothers.
OW: It might be hard to say, but is there any particular story or grandmother that really stood out to you?
JT: For me, personally, Carluccia, a self-suﬃcient farmer in Calabria, was somewhat of a hero (pictured below). As an amateur gardener myself, it was amazing to meet a woman in her 80s who managed to grow all the food she needed (save for coﬀee beans and sugar) to feed her extended family. Her wheat was ground to make ﬂour for bread and pastas, olives cured and pressed for oil, animals used for milk and ultimately to provide meat. It was impressive and showed a rare way of living that, as a documentarian, I strive to record. You can watch the ﬁlm I made about her here.
OW: What didn’t I ask you that you want people to know?
JT: This is a community celebration of grandmothers and cooking, and it’s built for people to participate in. Together we can make a global diﬀerence in older women’s lives by celebrating them and spreading the word. Here are two ways to support the project:
- Add a favorite female elder to the Add Your Elders page. A grandmother, aunt, mother, etc. who has positively inﬂuenced your life, or made something delicious for you. You are welcome to share photos and memories of women who are still living, as well as those who have passed.
-Tell a friend or share on social media that the Cooking with Grandmothers website just launched, and to go sign up for the newsletter to get wonderful new grandmother stories and recipes each week.
BONUS RECIPE: Mamma Maria’s Fragole al Vino (Wine-Soaked Strawberries)
Fragole al Vino, or Strawberries with Red Wine, is the perfect way to use the last of summer’s strawberries. Get to know Mamma Maria, the Italian grandmother Theroux knew as a child and features in her cookbook, on the new Cooking with Grandmothers website.
- 4 cups ripe organic strawberries
- 2 tbsp cane sugar
- 1 cup red wine
Gently clean the strawberries by brieﬂy rinsing them, or wiping them with a soft cloth. Cut large strawberries lengthwise into halves or quarters; leave small ones whole. Sprinkle the berries with sugar, and pour the wine atop. Serve immediately, or leave the berries to soak in the fridge for a few hours to allow the ﬂavors to develop. These strawberries are delicious with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Serves 8.