For three years, Anna Francese Gass traveled around the country, toting a kitchen scale, measuring cups and measuring spoons. She’d unpack these items in the kitchens of bubbes, nonnas and abuelas, accomplished home cooks who were eager to show off the dishes they’d learned from their own matriarchs.
Anna’s mission: preserve the cherished recipes that are, she says, family heirlooms and in many cases have never been written down.
“I’m going to watch you cook,” Anna would tell the women, “and I don’t want you to put anything into a bowl or a pot before I measure it.”
The result of these cooking lessons is Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women. Contained in the lushly photographed cookbook are 100 recipes from 37 women with roots in 30 countries, along with the tales of why they left Ghana, Peru, Lebanon, Haiti or the Philippines to start a new life in the United States.
A graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), Anna spent nearly a decade as a professional recipe tester. But there was one recipe she’d never attempted: her Italian American mother’s beloved meatballs. “I was standing next to my mother one day watching her make the meatballs and it was a lightbulb moment,” Anna recalls. “This is a recipe I’ve been eating my entire life, that my three children love. For all my time documenting the recipes of others in test kitchens, I didn’t have a record of my own family’s heritage dishes.”
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