Colleen Friel wasn't yet 10 when she first made meatballs in her grandmother Rose's kitchen in Queens, New York. Rose Sansevero Friel, Colleen's paternal grandmother, was famous in the family for dishes created by her Italian forebears — but no Sanseveros ever had written down how they made the meatballs.
So Colleen learned to prepare the meatballs with no recipe, just a few rules Rose dictated: "Grandma said lots of grated parmesan, lots of parsley and lots of garlic. And always wash your hands" before plunging in to mix and shape the seasoned beef. Young Colleen became such a meatball chef that her other grandmother, on her German-and-Irish mother's side, would invite her over just to prepare the dish.
As an adult, Colleen Friel Olsen heard her cousins pining for Grandma Friel's Meatballs, and set about translating her memories into measurements. She believes the recipe she created is very faithful to Grandma Friel, who died in 2003. Every time Olsen makes the meatballs, she joins legions of cooks who are lovingly preserving — and, sometimes, updating — family recipes handed down over generations.
Since the first colonists settled in what would become the United States, every wave of new arrivals has brought its own history and heritage of food. Sandra Oliver, a food historian and editor of the website FoodHistoryNews.com, says the family recipes brought to the new land were "usually for special, significant dishes, not just something everyday. Many of these people were leaving homelands where they were struggling financially and they brought recipes that they might not have had all that often in the old country, something that was a little beyond their means. But they brought the recipe believing that if they could make it in this country, the dish would be a way of celebrating, a symbol of their success here."
Today, "There are probably as many reasons why somebody would want to preserve a parent's or grandparent's recipe as there are people who want to do it," Oliver says. Often, it's a desire to honor and sustain "an ethnic or regional identity — and this is particularly powerful around holidays," she says.
In Oliver's case, her Swedish grandmother, Vickie, made a traditional thin-rolled cookie called gamaldags pepparkakor, flavored with spices and orange peel. In the early 1990s, Oliver and her sister joined their mother, Louise, on Thanksgiving weekend to make the cookies and put them in tins, where the taste would mellow to perfection by Christmas. Since Louise died in 1996, Oliver says she and her sister have carried on the baking; she is convinced that "in our family, it wouldn't be Christmas without pepparkakor."