Between socially distant holidays and a nagging need for comfort food, millennials like me are finally tackling the family recipes we find most intimidating...and meaningful.

Kiera Carter
December 23, 2020
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A woman's hands cooking spaghetti and meatballs in a skillet
Credit: Getty

I'll never forget the first time I had questionable Italian food. In high school, a friend's mom made meatballs for a sleepover, and I looked at them with confusion: The meat was dry, and the sauce was more of a tomato paste. I wasn't trying to be a food snob or an ungrateful guest, but it was the moment my developing adolescent mind realized, my family's cooking is different.

My mom's side of the family came from Sicily, so just picture what The Sopranos would be like if you edited out all the mob stuff and only had the food left. That was my house. My grandparents even had the same dining room set as Tony and Carmela, down to the placemats, and I always left their place smelling like garlic. We had sauce on Sundays and fish on Christmas Eve, and I worked at the local Italian bakery through high school. To this day, I passionately believe cannolis need to be filled on the spot for max freshness. No one likes a soggy shell.

But this focus on food had a strange effect on me as an adult: Instead of being something I tackled with gusto, my family dishes became intimidating and untouchable. Me? Make meatballs? I don't have what it takes! What if they turn out like my friend's mom's? I couldn't bear the thought of failure, and the judges were fierce. "Just okay," my grandfather would say after eating at perfectly respectable restaurants. It certainly didn't help that no one in my family could articulate a recipe. All I knew was that meatballs required "a good amount of garlic," per instructions from my mom, and the sauce took hours. I loved cooking, but it somehow seemed best to stick to my millennial fallbacks—food blogs and quinoa bowls, recipes I could actually follow—and leave my mysterious family dishes to my elders.

As the years went on, our family dynamic changed (divorce, death, life), and these dishes became a holiday-exclusive, the few times a year we'd all gather for a tray of baked ziti and homemade pizza. I also learned more about my biological background: I was adopted at birth, and it turns out I'm almost entirely Irish. I started to wonder if my own kids could possibly have the same associations with Italian food as I do. Like, Why do we, a bunch of Irish people, have such a strong stance on meatballs and cannolis? But we only eat sauce twice a year?

Then, came socially distant holidays during the pandemic, and these customs suddenly felt more important; inconveniently enough, at a time when I could no longer count on the women in my family to do the work for me. Baked ziti is a holiday staple, its own course, and the thought of going without it once we canceled group gatherings was too much to handle in a year when I needed comfort—and comfort food—more than ever. (Related: Why We're Craving Grandma's Cooking.)

Of course, I'm not the only one cooking up family recipes as the world shelters in place: Kristie, a 33-year-old accountant living in St. Louis, finally tackled her great grandmother's stuffing this Thanksgiving. "My dad usually makes it, but since we didn't get together this year, I made a whole feast at home," she says. "I wasn't going to see any of my family in person, but making this recipe allowed me to take a pause and reflect on some memories."

Marie, 43, a program manager in Dallas, has been making family recipes every single week since the early days of the pandemic. "My boyfriend's mom, sister, and I baked the dishes he grew up with every Sunday from May to November," she says. They Facetimed and called it "Taste of Sunday." These sessions felt like a first date at first, she says, "but we're so much more comfortable with each other now, and I can create pie crust without following a recipe!" As a holiday gift, she made them a book featuring photos of all their creations.

I found similar satisfaction in texting my mom a zillion questions about sauce and ziti, which could have been frustrating under normal circumstances (no measurements!) but gave us something to bond over from a distance. I called her for help, sent pics of my final product (a success, for the record), and learned that it's pretty hard to screw up something with ingredients as wonderful as mozzarella and ricotta.

Most importantly, I finally feel like my family recipes have a chance at living on through the generations, in a way they didn't before. By definition, customs aren't genetic; they're something you practice and perfect, like the recipes you repeat over and over hundreds of times through the years—the sauce, the stuffing, the pies—until they're pressed so deeply into your brain that it's easier to make them in your sleep than record even the vaguest measurements. I'm not on that level yet, far from it, but oddly enough, it took this time of pause to bring me a big step closer.