Woman Finds Worn Out Paper She Can’t Understand – Turns to an Unlikely Source to Decipher a Piece of Family History
She couldn’t read the old recipe, but Reddit users helped her break the code.
“Food is the love language of our family,” says Natasha Contardi. “My nonna put it in us.”
When her grandmother started to suffer from dementia, though, there was the fear that that language would get harder and harder to understand.
So Natasha started in earnest to recopy cherished family recipes and to make sure that she understood how to make them — and pass them down to her children.
A Favourite Family Recipe
Getting her large, Italian family together to cook is one of Natasha’s favourite traditions. Dozens of family members join in, from Natasha’s nonna down to her young daughter Teagan. It’s during these mega cooking sessions that the family shares stories, skills and know-how. It’s how they recall family memories — and make new ones.
So Natasha catalogued all the family recipes she could find. She practiced making them with her family to get the “right feel and smell and learn the muscle memory.” The smallest details were important to keeping her family traditions alive and strong.
One day, when Natasha was rifling through a stack of her grandmother’s recipes, she came across a time-worn slip of paper in the bottom of a recipe box. The recipe was in Italian, written across the paper in an elegant but old-fashioned cursive. Natasha couldn’t read it, so she took it to her grandmother; but unfortunately, Natasha’s nonna didn’t recognize it.
A Puzzle Brings People Together
Struck by the fact that her family’s history was slipping away through the cracks of her grandmother’s memory, Natasha was determined to decipher the recipe. She needs to find people who could read the old, Italian writing. She also needed to find people who were familiar with this type of recipe.
So she turned to social media. On Reddit, Natasha could both find a large enough audience and target a group of people with a very specific interest or skill set. Natasha posted a photo of the recipe on a Reddit community called r/Old_Recipes. “Help understanding old Italian recipe: Found in my Nonna’s recipe stash, it’s not her handwriting and I have the hardest time reading cursive. Anyone want to take a shot?”
It turned out that many people wanted to take a shot. Members of the online community jumped at the chance to help Natasha translate this piece of her family’s history. Some had experience with old recipes; others could read the Italian script. Piece by piece, they added their knowledge and expertise to figure out the puzzle.
The Recipe Comes Back to Life
A food historian and owner of a bakery in Mexico recognized the word “serpentone” as the term for a very specific pastry from the Umbria region of Italy. Natasha confirmed that her family was from that area.
Other Reddit users translated the list of ingredients, often times tossing ideas back and forth. They collaborated to figure out whether or not the recipe was calling for extra egg whites, for example, or for egg whites to be set aside.
Still others contributed their knowledge of the Umbrian dialect and culture, explaining how some parts of the recipe were left out because it was simply assumed that the reader would know them. There were conversations about figurative language and specific terms such as the word for “pan.”
And the recipe turned out to be very old — versions of it can be dated back to 400 A.D.
When Natasha was able to assemble all the pieces, she was left with a 1,600-year-old recipe for a very special, snake-shaped pastry made with almonds and wheat flour. While several contributors recognized the pastry in the recipe, there are just as many different ways to make it. Natasha’s family’s recipe seems to be the only one calling for chocolate.
A Piece of Her Family’s History
What Natasha had discovered — with the help on an online community of history, cooking and culture buffs — was a piece of history that could be traced through generations and generations of her family. And which she was now ready to pass down to her daughter.
When Natasha shared what she had learned with her nonna, the elderly woman’s memories of the recipe started flowing back. She remembered asking her sister-in-law to write down the special recipe with chocolate. Natasha had unearthed another way to connect with her grandmother.
Four generations of the Contardi family continue to cook together, and there’s always a warm story to share in the kitchen. Natasha recalls the homemade pasta sauce her grandfather would make and stock away for the winter, the jars of homemade jam, Bundt cakes with apples or pears, and preserved meats.
Natasha says that food is the language of love in her family — and by working to hold on to these cherished family recipes, she’s shown everyone from her grandmother to her daughter how important it is to hold tight to these kinds of family ties.
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