My parents migrated to Australia in 1970 from Germany, and sadly, no other relatives, no sisters, brothers aunts or grandparents came to join us. I had spent many Christmases looking outside by bedroom window at my neighbor's house fill with blur-rinsed grandmas, uncles, rowdy cousins, and bouffy-haired aunts roll up and fill their yard. The cars parked on the street during these festive times were never our relatives, and I longed for a grandma of my own that I could touch and feel.
Now, many years later, the cars parked on the street do belong to my extended family, and have made a point to mark my home a gathering place for family and food (minus the bouffy-haired aunts). I am unashamedly happy to admit that I am compensating for my lack of extended family gatherings when I was young. Yet, my mind still turns to being curious about who my grandmothers were. I have their names, birth dates and photos stored in my family tree, but I want to know more.
Whether or not you are collating a family cookbook, discovering more about your family history, searching for traditional family heirloom recipes, or wanting to connect, it might be useful to have a question guide to give you some ideas about what you might want to ask. When our grandparents are still alive and accessible, there may not be a sense of urgency for this, and we may just think that there will be plenty of time for such matters. I encourage you to search out and ask these questions of your grandparents, great aunts and uncles or those indispensable family friends while you have the time. Record them by voice recording them or writing them down. Inevitably there will come a time when there is no more time, and when the chance has passed.
Here is what I would recommend as a starting point, and adapt them to suit your particular situation and the person you are interviewing. You can ask some of them or all of them. Don’t be scared to ask other questions to understand your interviewee better. Record the recipes that go with the memories if you wish. Story-gathering may be something you do gradually, or all at once. No matter, as long as you have made a start.
1. What was your favourite food growing up and why did you love it so much?
2. What food do you love to eat now?
3. Do you have a special tradition or ritual around how you eat it?
4. What do you love to make for other people?
5. What’s your best kept cooking or baking secret?
6. What dish sums you up the best?
7. What are your important food memories of your own childhood?
8. What dish reminds you most of home?
9. What food did you hate or dislike as you grew up?
10. Is there anything that you won’t eat and how did that start?
11. What’s the best thing you ever tasted and where were you at the time?
12. What’s the one thing you want to try but haven’t had the chance to?
You might want to consider what you can do with these food stories, and you may well want to gather food stories from other relatives. Or ask the same question of all your relatives, and collate them all into a book with recipes and photos included.
These questions are all questions that I would enthusiastically ask my grandmas if they were still alive today. The answers to these questions are part of your relative’s food story, but it’s also part of your food story, and what makes you unique. There may be more things that you have in common with your relative then you think, and that in turn builds unity, connection and identity, a sense of calm that you are who you are.