Project Happy

Food: The happiest of traditions

Editor’s Note: Share your family recipes with us on CNN iReport.

Story highlights

Trying new recipes is a great way to start a tradition

Two researchers are recovering old recipes and traditions for a new generation

CNN  — 

I grew up in the kitchen, watching my mother turn the mundane into magic from my bouncy chair in the doorway.

Pots, pans, wooden spoons and lumps of dough were my favorite toys. Starting before I could even read, we sat together, poring over cookbooks like bedtime stories.

To some, cooking is a chore that takes up time and makes a mess. In my house, cooking has always been a source of joy and a way to spend time with my mom. We bonded in that kitchen, sharing secrets, telling stories and solving every little problem over the stove.

By the time I was in middle school, trying new recipes with my mom became a holiday all its own. One special day was always a Monday in the fall, often to the backdrop of rain mixing with the cascade of rust-colored leaves.

For weeks ahead of time, we would gather recipes for cookies, breads, hearty soups and dozens of other dishes, stacking up in a pile of mouthwatering inspiration. Then, the adventure began.

Pepperoni breadsticks are a favorite for my friends and family.

Like two mad scientists, we would dance around the kitchen’s island, gathering ingredients, mixing them up and stirring pots on the stove. There was always some great mess or mishap and lots of joy and laughter.

The day was an extraordinary journey that would take us to new places, although we never left home.

My dad always looked forward to coming home and enjoying the treats we had whipped up, marveling each time at the pepperoni breadsticks, chocolate fudgy cups (with just a hint of orange oil) and myriad other creations.

Twisting your own soft pretzels

Once, we re-created a historical feast from the cookbook belonging to my favorite American Girl doll, Kirsten (and nicked a dessert recipe from her predecessor, Felicity): a hearty dinner of homemade bread and Swedish meatballs with potatoes, concluded with raspberry flummery.

We did our fall cook-fest for years, even when I would come home during college. Sure, we cook together for birthdays, holidays and parties. But there’s something special about our fall cooking tradition. I still make a special visit to see my parents when the leaves change.

We relish the joy of discovering new recipes as an exercise in anticipation. It’s replacing the demands of the clock with the eager glances at the timer and eyeing the oven door or lid. It’s forging new roads into unexpected flavors and textures. It’s finding a recipe that becomes a tradition.

To this day, I can’t forget the way these new flavors wrapped around me or how I felt tying on a matching apron next to my mom as we learned these recipes for the first time together.

Our cooking also fed my love of history, forging a connection to the past.

My little cookbook informed me that these kinds of meals fed the bodies and souls of hardworking Swedish immigrants on the American frontier in the 1850s. I remember wondering how delicately written recipes like this had survived the test of time.

To create cookbooks for each of its historical American Girl characters, the Pleasant Company collected cookbooks (including one from 1804), pamphlets, magazines, periodicals, diaries, journals and personal family recipes spanning eras from across the United States, American Girl spokeswoman Susan Jevens said.

Sadly, these little American Girl cookbooks, treasure troves to me, are discoverable only on eBay today.

But it turns out other people share my passion for discovering recipes from yesteryear. The dedication to transcribing old, handwritten recipes and preserving traditions continues through researchers like Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia.

A year ago, Connell and Nicosia dipped into a manuscript from the University of Pennsylvania archives, written and bound between 1765 and 1830, and discovered a familiar food: “maccarony cheese.”

They decided to test out the recipe, which used eggs and sherry, and use it to kick off their public food history blog, Cooking in the Archives. The goal: to transcribe early modern recipes handwriting from the 1600s to the 1800s and modernize the ingredients and cooking methods.

“It feels like another way to go treasure hunting,” Connell said. “Even if you know what you’re looking for, you don’t know what you’ll find.”

While they practiced reading and transcribing handwriting from earlier centuries, they also found that the recipe collections were a guide to caretaking and health for each family that kept them. Culinary recipes were right next to those for medicinal purposes.

“These manuscripts are a depository of women’s knowledge at the time, central to a family’s health and well-being,” Nicosia said.

Little notes like “the best” or names can be found scribbled next to the recipes, much like my family recipes that have been marked up and handed down over time.

Home cooks, chefs, scholars and food historians began following each recipe and the stories behind them. And readers contribute their own knowledge of puddings and shortbread, different recipe origins, time periods and share recipes of their own.

It made me think of the copies of spattered and handwritten recipes that followed me to college in a binder. Often, I had to call my mom and ask for recipes that she always made from memory.

Preserving summer in a Mason jar

I treasure those copies most, because each name summons up a memory. Just the aroma or taste of those dishes brought me back to that incandescent day.

Homemade pumpkin doughnuts are a fall favorite in our house.

To see my mother in the kitchen and taste the results of her cooking, people assume that the traditions were in her family for years.

Her skill stems from a tenacity that pushed her to stand on a chair next to the stove at age 6, trying out recipes on the side of the sugar bag if she had at least three of the ingredients.

I can never thank her enough for sparking that same passion within me. There must be a lifetime of laughter within those kitchen walls.

We cooked our way through the best and worst days. Funny enough, I can’t remember now why some of those days began badly, but I know that they ended with smiles.

The hours spent on our feet cooking for parties or family get-togethers were always worth it when we saw everyone light up as they dug into the dishes and treats we prepared for days ahead of time.

Gifting from your kitchen: A toffee tutorial

Sharing good food with others creates a bond. I’m not just enjoying a meal alongside loved ones; I’m creating a remembrance that weaves all of the senses together.

I think that’s why people love my mother’s cooking. It’s not just delicious; it’s memorable. People remember how they felt when they savored it, even years later. To cook for others is to share a bit of your heart and soul.

Together, our family has strung together its own cookbook of found recipes, and every page is full of memories that I hope to share one day with a family of my own. This is how a tradition begins and continues.

Look back through your own family history for that yellowed recipe tucked away, and look ahead to new recipes that you’ve never tried before.

You might be surprised by what is waiting to be discovered in a simple list of ingredients and steps and the happiness you’ll find there.