When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, no one is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.   

—Molly Wizenberg, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table

As a personal historian I interview people to capture their stories for posterity. Often it is their food memories that bubble to the surface first, and that stir poignant and powerful emotions. Whether you intend to create a heritage cookbook to pass on to the next generation or you would simply like to begin your own life story project with an exploration of your food memories, here are a few tips to get the family involved, plus 20 conversation-starting food-themed questions.

Holidays where extended family gathers in one place are an optimal time to collect stories and memories via oral history interviews. There needn’t be a lot of pressure. Simply turn on your smart phone’s voice recorder or set up a video camera on a tripod, then forget it’s there…and, let the reminiscing begin.

Tips for Getting Your Family Involved

  • Make one person (you?) the point person, organizing the day and ensuring that recordings get transcribed and backed up digitally.
  • Distribute recipe cards to everyone and ask that they handwrite one of their favorite recipes on the front with accompanying memories on the back.
  • Use the recipe cards as a jumping-off point for telling longer stories that, when joined together, bring your family history to life.
  • Print our the food-themed questions below to ensure that if there is a lull in conversation you’ll have plenty of ideas to prompt memories.
  • Snap a few pictures during the memory gathering session, an assignment I am sure one of the younger members of your family will be thrilled to take on!
  • Consider collecting all the recipes and food memories along with a special collection of photos old and new into a heritage cookbook that you can gift to loved ones next year. Go the DIY route or reach out to a personal historian for professional assistance.

I wonder…what dish will you bring to this family reminiscence potluck?

20 Family History Questions to Capture Food Memories

1. How did you learn to cook?
2. Who taught you some of your most important kitchen lessons? Tell me about them.
3. What are your oldest recipes and where did they come from?
4. What are some of your family’s unique food traditions?
5. How was cooking in your home (either growing up or when you were raising your family)
similar to or different from other families in your neighborhood?
6. What do you remember about holidays and special events?
7. What are some of your earliest/favorite/best/funniest food memories?
8. Who are/were the best cooks in the family? Tell me about them.
9. What family dishes would you miss the most if you never tasted them again?
10. Are there recipes that particularly represent your family’s culture, religion, or regional
11. Are there any recipes in your family that seem unusual or unique?
12. What were your experiences making some of your first dishes?
13. What are some important kitchen lessons you have learned?
14. What cooking triumphs (or disasters) stand out in your memory?
15. How has cooking changed for you over the years?
16. Describe the kitchen of your childhood. What color were the walls? Was it small or big? Was there a window, and what was the view? What were the smells, the sounds? Were the pots and pans hung on hooks or hidden in a cabinet? What was the pantry filled with? Did you do anything other than cook there—gather with friends, do your homework, talk on the telephone?
17. What did you talk about around the dinner table?
18. Who sat/sits at the head of your table, and is it a position of honor?
19. What foods always cheer you up?
20. What meal do you most often cook for those you love?

These are just a few ways to start your family food documenting project. After all, according to the Irish, laughter is brightest where food is best!