As we draw smaller and smaller circles around our food community, we often forget the power of recipes to connect us to each other.

Nancy’s “Benz Cake” recipes in her baker’s shorthand.

Recipes in the personal sense. I’m not talking about the results of a keyword search or a formula in that latest best-selling cookbook, not the pasta-of-the-month at the back of a magazine or the marketing copy on the back of a box. Along with vegetables grown by farmers with real names and faces, a local food system includes dishes with memories of people we actually know.

It’s difficult, I know. Epicurious is a bookmark in my browser, and one of my favorite pastimes is decorating cookbooks with little sticky notes. I can’t argue against the lure of convenience, the promise of infallibility or the excitement of the exotic.

Like with many lessons in life, however, it took a hard loss to remind me of what’s important. I took for granted personal recipes until that fateful day when I couldn’t find the torn, black pocket folder that had followed me from home to home. In it were recipes collected from years of Christmas cookie exchanges, letters from my mom transcribing dishes we ate together in Vietnam, my college roommate’s family’s tortillas, how to ferment injera from my DC neighbor, my babysitter’s microwave chile. Notes to myself, notes to share with others.

Recipe cards sent — along with said cake and chocolate sauce — to celebrate a long-distance birthday.

You don’t have to spend all your days in the kitchen to value recipes. We need kitchen messengers as much as we need cooks. The next time you hear yourself saying, “This is soooo good!” ask for the recipe. Then pass it along, often and with love.

It’s Mother’s Day. Ask the favorite mother in your life (yes, it’s not always our own…) for her story of a dish, any dish. It could be a lifeline from the war ration years or a treasure enjoyed only once a year or the soup that gets her from Monday over Wednesday to Friday. Get the recipe and add it to your stash. Then someday soon, give it away.

Notes on the back of a napkin, the curious cook’s antidote to NDAs.

Sharing recipes 13 May,2007Thy Tran

  • Karin

    You are so right. We have to share.
    My mother was not a baking mum, but she knew how to make candies and sweets. He recipes are gone because she is. (She was born 1913). Most of the recipes can´t be found nowadays.


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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