From One Generation to the Next: Documenting the Oral Tradition in Food

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Apr 07, 2020
by Carla Zahra
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From One Generation to the Next: Documenting the Oral Tradition in Food

Young Cultural Innovator Yu Nakamura brings Grandma's Recipes to Cajun community festival Cochon de Lait Yu Nakamura's fascination with "Grandma's Recipes" began five years ago in Japan

Nothing smells quite as good as a grandmother's kitchen, and no one knows that better than foodie Yu Nakamura. As the co-founder of 40creations, Nakamura has been documenting oral traditions from grandmothers, a generation of women who provide a fresh perspective on cultures that have historically been dominated by male storytelling.

Throughout her journey, Nakamura has found the secret to cooking like our grandmothers lies not in the ingredients we use, but, instead, in the fragments of wisdom traditionally passed down from generation to generation.

Pieces of advice such as "The most important step in making this pumpkin jam is to stir the jam clockwise!" have frequently been passed on to Nakamura during her search for culinary wisdom. While this instruction would probably be left out of an ordinary cooking book, Nakamura believes these quirks are the "wisdom of living" that can only be inherited by cooking alongside our elders. As family structures change, then, inevitably, so will the direction in which jams are stirred.

"Families are often living apart, having fewer children than in the past, and moving towards the nuclear family type," says Nakamura. "The fact that we no longer live with our extended families means we are not taught to cook side-by-side with our grandmothers, so we lost the chance to pass on their recipes and tips."

Nakamura's fascination with "Grandma's Recipes" began five years ago in Japan. Since then, she has collected recipes from grandmothers all over the world, sharing documentaries on YouTube and publishing a book in Japan and Korea, never leaving out the little bits of wisdom she picks up along the way.  

After attending the third program of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators in 2016, Nakamura found a network of likeminded creatives who encouraged her to continue pursuing her documentation of oral traditions. Among this group was Samuel Oliver, who she collaborated with in 2019 through a travel grant from Salzburg Global and the Kresge Foundation, traveling with her film crew from Japan to New Orleans to document Cajun food, culture, and history.  

During the trip, Nakamura attended the Cajun community festival, called "Cochon de Lait," which is organized by Oliver and his wife's family. Together with a local photographer who she met through Oliver, Nakamura interviewed different grandmothers at the festival, all in their 80s, who shared their traditional wisdom of Cajun and Creole cuisine.

"As soon as I heard the story of Samuel and his wife's family's festival, I really thought that this would be a great opportunity for an 'outsider,' as well as locals who don't live with a big family, to learn about the community's food customs and wisdom," says Nakamura.

Wherever Nakamura goes to learn about food culture, she is always pleasantly surprised by the similarities she finds in the different communities. "When I collect these recipes from grandmothers in different countries, it is strange to find that the similar things exist beyond the borders of the country," she explains. "For example, I always notice the grandmothers' ingenuity in feeding their families in the face of starvation, and their secrets to living happily even though they are poor."

Recounting the story of one Cajun grandmother who she met at Cochon de Lait, Nakamura says, "Mavis proudly told me that 'Cajuns don't waste anything.' She shared stories from her childhood with me, describing it as poor but truly, rich. Her parents were farmers, and Mavis had eight sisters, all raised growing cotton, sweet potatoes, corn, cows, horses, pigs, and dogs. Although they didn't have any money, they never went hungry as everything they ate was home-grown, and everything they wore was made by their mother from their own cotton.

"These situations are similar to what I discover in Japan, Thailand, and many countries in Europe too. They knew how to eat, how to live happily without money, and how to stay healthy. These stories teach us about the weaknesses of our own generation, which has not inherited this wisdom and has often overlooked it as trivial," she continues.

The most surprising trait that Nakamura uncovered during her time in New Orleans was the grandmother's love for drinking. "They have so much fun doing it while cooking!" says Nakamura. "But really, this trip has changed my perception of the Cajun community.

"Cajuns have large, close-knit families, and it seems like everyone loves to cook. At first, I thought it may be due to the influence of the Catholic religion, but I now realize the importance of their ingenuity and hard work to maintain those relationships. As Samuel's mother told me, there are three requirements to describe Cajuns: 'Who's your mom, are you Catholic, and can you make a roux from scratch?", says Nakamura.
 
It's all too easy to view Cajun culture through rose-colored glasses, Nakamura explains, especially when they open up their homes, slow-roast a pig from the early hours of the morning, and serve Cajun cuisine to more than 300 people while Cajun music fills the room.

"The truth is, Cajuns won't organize these festivals by themselves anymore as it's just too much work, so now it's up to the next generations to continue this tradition and add new colors to the mix," she says. "I realized that we need to continue to innovate our culture in order to pass it on to the next generation."


The Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators empowers rising talents in the creative sector to drive social, economic, and urban change. Launched in 2014, it is building a global network of 500 competitively-selected changemakers in "hub" communities who design collaborative projects, build skills, gain mentors, and connect to upcoming innovators in their cities and countries.     

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