I had written down all the birthdays of my grandparents, pinned it up on the fridge, thinking that one day I will celebrate their birthdays but never did. Then, during lockdown of 2020, I decided that this year I was going to do something about it.
What could I do, I asked myself, that would appropriately honour that person? This was particularly difficult for two of the grandparents whom I had never met, and both my parents had already passed away, and only one living aunt remained from either side of the family.
I went with what was most comfortable for me: food. I had resolved that I would celebrate each of my parents and their parents with a special meal and cake for their birthdays, with a candle lit for them on the table, perhaps sharing and laughing about our memorable moments with them. I didn’t want to forget or take for granted how much they had done for me. Every parent sacrifices something, sometimes a great deal, for what we are today, and it was important to me that my children also learn that honouring ancestors and our connection with them can deepen gratitude and peace with what we have now.
So I set to work with the resources that I had so far: my own memories of what they liked to eat, what food habits they had, what their tradition were, what their hallmark dishes were. Unfortunately, I had no recipes to draw on, as my parents both often cooked without recipes, so had to go about creating similar recipes (see this blog for tips on what to do when you don’t have the recipe).
For my mother, I decided to make veal schnitzel with mushroom sauce, because she always made it really well, and bake a sponge cake with a quark and berry filling, as that was her signature cake she always made for our birthdays when we became adults. For my father, I made german sausages with potato rosti, as I have distinct memories of him making potato rosti regularly.
For my grandparents, it was a little more tricky, as I had either never met them or only had scant memories from when I was very young. So I quizzed my aunt on what foods they liked, what they always cooked, what they disliked. I was able to gather enough information to work out that my grandfather loved good quality French cheese as he had spent time in France before the war and loved it there, so for him it was easy: a caricature board. My grandmother was more difficult, as my aunt reported that during the war, there wasn’t any cake, or sweets, treats. She survived on whatever they could harvest from the garden and the simple ingredients that were otherwise available at the time. But I knew she was a very generous, cheerful person, so I drew on that as well and decided to honour her with a simple meal and a cherry apple ring cake, as apples would have been available at the time.
It was a different story for my other grandparents, as I had no one to ask. I could only work on the basis of a few details of what I knew about them. In this case, I decided that what I cooked was less important than dedicating the meal to them, that I would cook something that was perhaps historically and geographically appropriate, and light that candle at the table for them on that day.
My handwritten notes have now been replaced with a calendar with their photos, and their special meal or cake. This way, no one will be forgotten throughout the year. I used Canva for mine, but there are lots of other apps that are possible as well as your own free format.
This can be an activity that everyone can be involved in planning, and children can also play a part not just in the planning but for the dinner as well. Perhaps they can light the candle or set the table so they gain a sense of the occasion and the importance of considering our ancestry.