Heirloom Kitchen | Anna Francese Gass
By Anna Francese Gass
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York city, sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Anna: Hi, this is Anna Francese Gass and my cookbook is Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women.
Suzy Chase: I don't think we as Americans acknowledge enough how the cooking traditions of immigrant women have left a legacy on the American palate. Talk a bit about how you've cooked with grandmother around the country to compile this cookbook.
Anna: Yeah, I mean, I think it was kind of a aha moment for me as well. I grew up in an Italian home. My mother came over from Italy. I actually was with her. I was one years old, and my mother always cooked the food of her homeland and that's what I grew up eating. I was obviously very aware of American food. I loved "American Food" but in our house it's all those staples from the Italian kitchen because that's what my mother grew up eating. That's what she knew how to cook. What happened when I did the project and when I started it, I realized, but I guess I always ... We all kind of know this unconsciously, we just don't talk or think about it, but immigrants from all over the world that come here do that exact same thing. No one is coming over from China and starting to cook meatloaf and steak. They continue to make their homeland foods, and because these women did that, starting all the way back from when immigrations really began in this country, that's how we created this amazing diverse food landscape that we call American food.
Anna: I mean, if you think about meatballs, okay yes, their origin is Italian and that's where the women learned how to make them, but when you go out and you have spaghetti and meatballs, I mean you can have that at almost any restaurant. I think spaghetti and meatballs is as American as apple pie, so to speak, but the reason that is, the reason we've accepted these things into our culture is because nobody stopped making those foods the minute they came over here into the US.
Suzy Chase: So let's move on to the women who immigrated to the United States that are in this cookbook. What was the process of getting introductions to these 45 women?
Anna: So what happened was so nice, is that it really spread word of mouth. The way the whole project started was I just wanted to get my mom's recipes written down. I'm a recipe tester by trade. That's what I do for my living. I do it primarily out of my home and I love my job, but I realized I didn't have any of my mom's recipes written down, none of those were standardized and I really wanted to cherish and keep those recipes forever. My mom still cooks when we go over on Sunday, so there was never that need to learn, but then I realized that there's gonna be a day that my daughter wants to know how to learn ... Excuse me. Wants to know how to make those recipes, or her daughter, and you know, my mother isn't always gonna be able to cook them. So we started as a project, a family project, and I created a family cookbook, and then I had a moment that I thought, "Wow. I have all these friends from all over the world, many first generation kids. This is a service I could provide. This would be a fun blog. This is something I could do as a hobby." So this all started out with just a blog.
Anna: So I sent an email to literally every friend I had with a first generation background, and the response was overwhelming. Everyone said, "Oh my goodness. I want you to cook with my mom. I want these recipes recorded." It was like a service I was providing. I was getting to learn all these authentic homeland foods, and they were getting recorded recipes. Then they were all gonna go up on the blog so I could share them. Once the project started and my blog really took off, then word of mouth created the next opportunity. So I was cooking with Iraqi woman for example, and she said to me halfway through cooking, "You really need to cook with my friend [Sheri 00:04:19]. She's Persian. She makes the most amazing Tahdig. You need to know how to make that." She made that introduction, and so on and so forth. So it started with friends and then, like the last couple of women I cooked with, I didn't even know the children. It was just that word of mouth.
Suzy Chase: It's so funny, I was gonna ask you if these recipes were hard to get, but it just seems like it was just effortless and it just happened.
Anna: It just happened, and you know, it's so funny because people will say, "Oh, grandma's secrets." Or, "My grandma would always tell people the wrong ingredients or the wrong measurements because she didn't want anyone to make it just like her." Or, "This was secret." I didn't encounter that once. It was, "Let me share this with you, I want you to get it perfect. We can make it again." I mean, there were times that I had to follow up, because I'm in there with a pad and paper scribbling as they're throwing things in the pot, and then when I went home and recipe tested it, it's like, "Wait a minute. Was it, did this go first? Did that go first?" So sometime I'd call and say, "I just want to make sure I'm getting this right." And everyone was more than willing to just sit on the phone with me to make sure it was absolutely perfect, and these women were with me during the cookbook process too, because then a recipe tester has a question, or a copy editor has a question, and I don't know if it was luck, but I came across the most generous women I could've ever encountered.
Suzy Chase: What's one new tip that you learned from a grandma you met along the way? Maybe a life tip or a cooking tip.
Anna: Wow, there's a lot. I feel like I learned so much in each kitchen. I learned first of all, I should probably take a step back. Once I went to the first home, it was a Greek woman Nelly in Long Island. We start making her pastitsio, her Greek dishes, and just by accident I said, "Hey Nelly, why did you come to the US?" And she just started telling me her immigration story, and while she was telling me this story, I'm thinking about how it's similar to my mom, or different, but the threads are the same, and I thought to myself, "This is just as important as the recipe, because why she came here and how this all came about is so important to just our historical oral knowledge of all these women." So I started writing down immigration questions before I went to the next appointment, because I wanted to know exactly why each women came here, and the stories were dynamic, and incredible, and inspiring, and that ended up going up on the blog too.
Anna: Just the fact, if you think about when you go on a trip today, right? You go on trip advisor, you ask you mom friends, you do all these different things before you head out, so that when you show up at your location destination, you're an expert. These women didn't have that. There was no world wide web, there was no cellphone, pictures or whatever. They just packed their bags and went. One of the women said to me, because [inaudible 00:07:31], "What made you do it? What made you get up one day and say, 'You know what? I'm leaving everything I know. I'm leaving my family, I'm leaving my friends and I'm going to this mysterious place to start a new life.'" And she said, "You know, what people from the US don't realize is the US is so enchanting. When you're not from here and you think about The United States Of America, there's a dream there. There's a dream to be had." And I just found that so special, and I think as Americans it's something that we should embrace and understand that we're so lucky to be here, and it's why other people want to come.
Anna: So just that tenacity, that courage, I just found so inspiring.
Suzy Chase: So in Heirloom Kitchen, it's organized with the recipe, a story, and a lesson. Talk a little bit about that.
Anna: When I went in and I was pitching cookbooks to all the different editors at all the different publishers, that was very important to me. I said, "I understand I'm sitting here. I am proposing a cookbook to you, but I think the only way that this is really gonna work and is really gonna be as special as I want it to be is if we also share the women's immigration story, because I think that's half the story." I'll tell you, when I'm making the recipes, I think about the women and I think about their story. I learned a whole bunch of different cooking techniques, for example the Palestinian women taught me how to make Maqluba, and Maqluba means, in Arabic means upside down. So it's this rice dish that you make in a pot and then at the end, when it's all done, you literally flip it upside down and you take it out of the pot and you're left with this mold, and I will tell you, I made a couple of that, did not work, but phone calls back and forth, I figured out how to do it and it's so satisfying when you turn this pot upside down and this beautiful, delicious, rice dish comes out.
Anna: So I just think that the book is what it is because you are getting the lessons and the stories, and the recipe all broken down for you, and obviously categorized by continent.
Suzy Chase: Your mother is in this cookbook. I found it interesting that she wanted nothing to do with pre-packaged frozen dinners that were the rage when we were growing up, and they were supposed to make our mom's lives easier.
Anna: Yeah. I have the chicken pot pie story in there because I think it's quintessential immigrant mother lure. I think that it's very funny and I think that a lot of people will also really relate to it. Yes, I mean, when we were kids all I wanted was a Marie Callender's chicken pot pie. I watched the commercial, it looked so delicious, and why did I have to eat this Italian food every night when I all wanted was this chicken pot pie? So she relented and bought it, and cooked it incorrectly because she didn't read the directions. She just kinda threw it in the oven and that was the end of our chicken pot pie, but I think for my mother, and especially, it's hard to make generalization, but for at least the women that cooked with, the immigrant women that I cooked with, is they value the food that they create so much that the pre-packaged ready in five minute meals, what you were saving in time, it wasn't enough.
Anna: It wasn't enough for them to say, "Okay, you know what? Forget my stuff, I'm just gonna do this." And it's funny, the women from Ghana told me that there were times her daughter would say to her, "Mom, we want to take you out to eat tonight. Let's just go out. We don't want you to cook. Let's just relax." And her mom's like, "No. I'd much rather eat my food. I don't need restaurant food." And I laughed when she told me that 'cause my mom doesn't like going out to eat either.
Suzy Chase: Really?
Anna: So funny. I think it's a common thread because there's so much pride in what they're creating, and it does keep them tethered to their homeland, which is still so very special to them. The cover of the book is my mom making Tagliatelle, which is a hand-cut Italian pasta, and I watched my grandmother make them, and obviously my mom grew up watching her mother make them, and when my mom makes Tagliatelle, we think about my grandmother who is obviously now past, but it's just so nice to have that memory and eat food that tastes exactly like how my grandmother used to make it.
Suzy Chase: The story that you told about your mom really shows that she viewed her new American identity as an extension of her Italian identity.
Anna: Yes. Absolutely. I think when they came here, these women, right? They were very brave, and they learned English, and I talk about my mom getting her citizenship and going to ESL classes to become an American. That's very important to them and they're proud to be American, but they also needed to create kind of like a safe haven. You go out in the world, you have an accent, you're an immigrant, everyone knows that, so when you come home at night, what's gonna make you feel safe? What's gonna make you feel comfortable? It's your food. The minute you start cooking and the meatballs are bubbling, or you have the rice cooking, or whatever it is that you made back in the homeland that you're now making here, food transports you. I can get transported to the past just as much as it gives you energy to catapult you into the future.
Suzy Chase: I think my very favorite photo is on the inside page of the cookbook. It's the one of the hands forming either ravioli or some sort of dumpling. It's fascinating how you're drawn, how I was drawn, to this woman in the photo. Is that your mom?
Anna: No. So that is Tina, and she is making traditional Chinese dumplings, and she makes everything from scratch and then she just sits there and pleats all these dumplings and they all look exactly the same and they're perfect. What I love about ... But first of all, my photographer Andrew Scrivani was just a genius. He is a genius and he does a lot of work for The Times, and it's because he's so wildly talented, but his whole thing was, "I want to see hands." This is food that you make with your hands. Nobody pulled out a food processor, nobody used their Kitchenaid. It was rolling pins, hands, mixing spoons. I had women using mixing spoons that they literally brought over from their country. They hold up a spoon and say, "This spoon is 45 years old." But that's the food of our grandmothers, right? They didn't have all these gadgets. They weren't sous vide, they weren't hot pot. So that was very important in the cookbook, to have a lot of hands, and I'm so happy that you were drawn to that photo because it is so tangible, right? Like you feel like you're standing right next to her while she's pleating these dumplings.
Anna: She told me that, so they make Chinese dumplings every New Year, and what I love about this story is, she said that the women would get up, and they make the filling, and they make hundreds of them. So all the women in the neighborhood would come together and sit down and while they're pleating the dumplings, they gossip. So it'd just be a totally gossip day making [crosstalk 00:15:14] for dinner.
Suzy Chase: I love it. On Saturday I made the recipe for tomato sauce with meatballs on page 25. Was this your grandmother's recipe?
Anna: Yes. To be honest with you, it was probably my great-grandmother's recipe. My mother also spent a lot of time with her maternal and paternal grandmothers, and they all had the same techniques to make all these different dishes. So yes, the Brodo di Mama, which is mom's tomato sauce, and the Polpette, which is meatballs, come from a very long line of women. My grandmother did a couple things that were different. One, as you know, she uses some of the sauce in the meatball mixture, which we feel makes them very tender, and there's no pre-frying or pre-baking, which I know a lot of people do. These meatballs just get simmered right in the sauce, which not only does it eliminate a step, once again, we think it makes a very light and airy meatball.
Suzy Chase: At the very beginning of this recipe you steep garlic, basil and olive oil. I feel like this is like the magical secret ingredient to this dish.
Anna: Yes. By creating, and almost kind of liking it to a T, because you're infusing this olive oil at a very low temperature to kind of marry all of those delicious ingredients, so that once you ultimately strain the garlic and the basil out, you're left with a very aromatic olive oil, which is the base of the sauce. Now, my grandmother was obviously a trend setter in her day because now you can buy so many infused olive oils.
Suzy Chase: What do you tell people who see a recipe, or who will see a recipe in this cookbook, and think, "That's not how my mother makes it."
Anna: Oh, I'm so glad that you asked that question, and actually, if you read the very beginning of the book, I do address that because I think we play a lot nowadays with the word authentic, I know you probably hear that word all the time.
Suzy Chase: All the time.
Anna: And you know, what really is authentic? How could we really put our finger on that, right? So what I'm saying is these are my mom's meatballs. She's from Calabria, it's very similar to the way in her mom's village probably made them, but you know when you get in the kitchen, that's your recipe, and you might, your husband might not like garlic, or your son doesn't like the pinch of hot pepper flakes so you eliminate that. So I think, what I would love this book to do for people is kind of like the way I look at any cookbook or even food magazine, is use it as a jumping off point. Let it stimulate in you those memories of your grandmother. So let's say for example you're Greek and you buy this cookbook because you want to know how to make Spanakopita, and then when you get to it you said, "Wait a minute, my grandmother didn't use cottage cheese, she used ricotta." Or whatever it is, but it gets those creative juices flowing, it gets those memories flowing, and that's what I really want this to do.
Anna: I do want you to try the recipes in the book. They are phenomenal, they are delicious, they're grandma's greatest hits, because everyone gave me theirs best dishes, but don't fret if it's not just like your grandmother, because your grandmother was special and she made things her way, just like these grandmothers made it their way and hopefully it just creates a new, that nostalgia for the homeland foods.
Suzy Chase: Grandma's greatest hits. I love that. I think the main sentiment in this cookbook is maintaining the culture of our origin countries was not a statement, it simply created the comfort of home in a new place. I think we all deserve the comfort of home.
Anna: Absolutely, and I think whether you're cooking a recipe from Poland, or literally you're just making your kids some brownies after school, I think that that's what food does for us. Food is the one thing that we all had in common. No matter who you are, how important, everyone has to eat, right? So it's this common thread amongst every single person on the planet, and it does provide comfort. When you're hungry, all you want to do, all you think about is what you're gonna eat. I know for my kids, the things that I make that they feel are very special, or when I'm eating something in mom's house in a Sunday that she made when I was a little kid and I can think about those days. It's why I think the term comfort food was created, right? Because food provides comfort.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called my last meal. What would you eat for your last supper?
Anna: I think going on what I just said, I think my last meal would have to be something that my mom cooks for me, because when I'm eating something that my mom made, I know that that bowl of food is not only just filled with nutrients and everything I need physically, there is so much there emotionally for me, and it's filled with her love and her care, and everything that she wants me to have. One of the women that I cooked with said, "A mother is full when the children have eaten." And I think about that every day because I think that's the most important gift our mother give us, is nourishment and the memories of our childhood through food.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Anna: My website is annasheirloomkitchen.com and I'm very active also on Instagram, and I'm at @annafgass. So at A-N-N-A, F as in Frank, G-A, S as in Sam, S as in Sam.
Suzy Chase: Heirloom Kitchens shows us that America truly is the land of opportunity. Thanks Anna for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Anna: Thanks Suzy. This was great.
Outro: Follow Suzy Chase on Instagram @cookerybythebook, and subscribe at cookerybythebook.com or in Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening to Cookery by the Book Podcast, the only podcast devoted to cookbooks since 2015.