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(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

KaiApril 11, 2023

The secret lives of recipes

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

For the most part, recipe books haven’t formed a significant part of our archives in Aotearoa. But they should, writes Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum curator Nina Finigan.

The plain brown cloth covering the tiny booklet is frayed around the edges. On the cover a faded handwritten note reads: “This book of receipts …. belonged to our grandmother Ellen Macnamara / Dated 1813…”. Receipts in this context means recipes.

This unassuming handwritten booklet lies within Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum’s manuscript collection – one of the thousands of documents, letters, diaries, legers and notebooks held within the walls of that grand building that overlooks the city from its perch on Pukekawa. As a curator I help take care of this collection and work to bring new voices into it. People think of museums as quiet spaces. They aren’t, they are loud. A museum storeroom echoes with the voices and histories of thousands – not just those who have been collected but also those who have done the collecting. And so, much of my role is about listening.

Ellen’s recipe book says many things. But its presence also reveals cracks – the spaces in between the things that are collected and remembered by institutions like mine. Albert Wendt once wrote: “…history is the remembered tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all that we have forgotten.” I try to listen for what calls out from those forgotten places too.  

Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu.

Ellen Macnamara’s booklet is split into two halves. The first contains recipes – things like jellies, puddings, pies and meads. The second is filled with folk remedies for everything from a cure for the common cold to a cure for breast cancer – the latter involving a poultice made from turnip leaves. The language and ingredients are not always familiar. Things like calves’ hooves are pervasive in the ingredient lists, and my attempts at transcribing it are peppered with question marks and ellipses.

Yet I find myself returning to it again and again.   

Over the years I’ve wondered why this tiny thing so persistently draws me in. Why it is that any opportunity that arises to show visitors, I bring it out of its bespoke grey card enclosure and carefully untie the cotton ribbon that helps shield its 210-year-old pages from the outside world. All wrapped up like the world’s most utilitarian birthday present.  

It may be small, but it is precious.   

Scanned photographs of Ellen Macnamara's recipe book. One image is of the cover, the other is a page featuring a hand written ginger bread recipe.
Ellen Macnamara’s recipe book in the Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum’s manuscript collection. (Images: Supplied)

This article is really an appeal to you, dear reader. We are looking for people to talk to about their family recipes. We want to explore questions of migration and settlement, of community and belonging, of cultural disruption and preservation, of who we are and how food is at the centre of it all.   

Ellen’s book is an anomaly in Auckland Museum’s manuscript collection. A search of “recipe book” “recipes” “receipt book” only comes up with a handful of examples. Others may be lurking in the collection, waiting to be discovered. But when I reflect on all the questions that unfurl from this book, I lament this absence. I think of all the stories we could tell, of all that are missing, all that we could share with each other. 

What would it look like to build a repository of recipes at Tamaki Paenga Hira? An archive of recipes and food stories that are inherent to this place and those that have travelled here. Recipes transmitted through generations via the written word, through oral traditions or ones that have been reclaimed. 

It’s no secret that the lives of women have not formed a significant part of the historical record and that our histories can be hard to find within our archives and museums. Objects like this recipe book are so precious because, among many things, they document the lived, everyday experiences of women. They whisper to us of their interior worlds and about what knowledge they held. They tell stories about what it means to be human that otherwise might go unheard.  

They also offer a remarkable immediacy to the past – so close you can touch it, taste it. This book is over 200 years old and yet, despite the handwriting and the occasional unfamiliar ingredient, I recognise what I see. For the most part I can read Ellen’s words and I can follow her instructions. Calves’ hooves aside, I can find most of her ingredients in the local fruit shop, at the butcher, in the aisles of the supermarket. And in my 21st century kitchen I can recreate her 200-year-old recipes. Reaching through time Ellen speaks directly to us. Her voice is not muted or secondary – she holds command of her universe. This knowledge has traversed continents and sustained generations.  

Ellen compiled her recipe book in a coastal township in Dublin county which was known at different times as Kingstown and Dún Laoghaire. In 1878 her daughter, also called Ellen, immigrated to Aotearoa New Zealand with her family – part of the wave of migration that brought many Irish here in the mid to late 19th century – and they brought this book with them. Among all the other family treasures, this tiny thing was deemed important enough to join them as they embarked on a new life on the other side of the world. Eventually, the book would be passed down to Sibyl and Josephine Mulvany – Ellen Macnamara’s great-granddaughters and two of New Zealand’s first studio weavers. In 1995, it was gifted by the family to Tāmaki Paenga Hira, along with the sisters’ weaving collection.  

But, back to the book’s arrival in New Zealand. I often wonder, why a recipe book? And, what did it mean to a family in this new place? Did they continue to use it? Or was it simply a link to home, something to anchor them in a new and unfamiliar land?  

Recipes and food traditions are highly specific to place. What happens when they are transplanted to a new location with a different climate, different produce, different culture? Food – the produce we use, how we prepare it, share it, and build identity around it – is essential to the human experience. And though they may be ubiquitous, there is nothing simple about a recipe. Recipes passed down across generations remind us that history is very much a living thing. Cultural continuity, identity and belonging reside in the words of recipes – they help keep our cultural DNA intact.  

But in instances where there has been cultural disruption, family recipes, or a lack of, perhaps only underscore the severance. I could use my own family as an example. My grandfather was a wonderful cook. We have recipes passed down to my mother from him and his Scottish family – when I think of my Gar I think of shortbread, hot cross buns and steamed Christmas pudding. These are buttery, pillowy, fogged up kitchen window reminders of home, love and connection. But there are other sides of my family where there is palpable disruption… 

A loaf of braided challah bread on a wooden board. The photograph is taken from a bird's eye view.
A challah made by the author. (Image: Supplied)

In the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, I decided to make challah – a bread traditionally made and eaten by Jews on Shabbat. I’d never made it before, but I had always wanted to. I’m not sure if this was simply because it looks pretty and I love bread or if it’s because it’s Jewish and therefore dwells somewhere in my cultural DNA – in the part of me that’s passed down from my Gran and connected to a place in north-east Poland; a place to which I have never been and may never go. I don’t know if this part of my family made challah – it’s an assumption on my part that they did. We have inherited no stories of this tradition; certainly nothing is written down. And so, making this bread (it wasn’t particularly successful I’ll add) and feeling connected to that part of my heritage might be total fiction. But when you don’t have a tangible link, you fill in the gaps.   

As I clumsily plaited the strands of dough, glazed it with egg-wash post-bake, and took a photo of its gleaming lumps and bumps, I felt a sense of… pride? This feeling was acute, I think because I know that this particular identity marker has not always been a source of pride. This absence of cultural inheritance is the result of many things. The pogroms of the late 19th century might be one. Migration and attempts at assimilation may be others. But this absence could also tell us about shame and fear, about hiding parts of yourself that might give you away and the role that food plays in this complex interplay between cultural identity, the private self and the world around us.  

Countless things radiate out from this small, personal example: migration, belonging, identity, war, heritage, cultural loss and reclamation. These words make it seem like I’m trying to aggrandise my story. In fact, it’s the opposite – this is an example of how the smallest (and most confused and patchy) story about food and recipes can unlock such complexity. Versions of this story are repeated in so many families. But there comes a point when time and distance has moved around us so completely that we don’t even look for the old ghosts anymore. We don’t know they were ever there to begin with.  

So in that moment I felt grateful that I could make this bread, which my ancestors may or may not have made, and feel proud. And I thought of how it might feel to have a recipe book like Ellen’s in the family.  

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