Family recipes steeped in tradition are a holiday staple. But what happens when someone tries to change it?
In my family, that recipe is the Czech classic of sauerkraut and dumplings. For the uninitiated, that combo might make you think of smelly kitchens and cold, Eastern European winters. But to me, it’s pure nostalgia.
My maternal grandmother’s family brought it over from the Czech Republic when they immigrated to the Midwest in the 1800s, and it’s been a holiday staple ever since.
Traditionally, the dish is served alongside roasted pork and gravy. But my sister Kelsey doesn't eat meat anymore.
“It’s a little bit of a sad, beige meal to just have fermented cabbage and dumplings, so you kind of have to have something with it,” she said. “I’ve experimented a little bit and vegetarian-based gravies are helpful. I’ve tried some alternative meat … roasted veggies, to try and make it a little bit lighter. It’s definitely not exactly the same but it works.”
My sister is an amazing cook. I’ve never met anyone better at opening a random pantry and making something delicious. I trust her, but I had some doubts. This is the family recipe we’re talking about, after all.
Turns out, my misgivings about changing a holiday classic are pretty normal.
“The place where recipes do become really sentimental and emotional, I would say often are around holidays,” said Tammy Proctor, distinguished professor of history at Utah State University. “Maybe that's the best thing about recipes is that they can evoke just such a powerful feeling of, you know, comfort and love and connection.”
Proctor has worked closely with the university’s extensive cookbook collection. Its hundreds of volumes cover everything from early modern European cookbooks to the latest editions from the most popular chefs today. She also co-hosts Eating the Past on Utah Public Radio.
She said there’s one common through-line: whether it’s because of new technology, convenience or scarcity, recipes are always changing.
“The advent of air fryers, for instance, I think has changed cooking techniques and households,” she said. “If you took a family recipe for something that required deep frying and you shifted it to an air fryer, it might still be the same recipe, but it's going to taste different. But it's going to take less time. It'll be easier to clean up.”
It’s not just new gadgets that can alter how we make food. Habits and tastes change, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five Americans have some sort of dietary restriction, and 5% identify as either vegetarian or vegan.
Sauerkraut and dumplings is a pretty simple recipe. Grate a potato into the sauerkraut to add a little starch, and add some salt and caraway seeds for flavor. Simmer until hot. The dumplings are a simple combination of baking mix and milk that steam on top for about 20 minutes.
“I think what I like about making this recipe is that it doesn’t have strict measurements or strict timelines,” said Kelsey. “You just get to be in the kitchen and cook it till it feels like what you remember it being.”
Family recipes aren’t always about perfectly recreating a specific taste or smell. They’re about evoking memories of loved ones coming together around a warm dinner on a cold night.
And for all the tinkering, Proctor said, sometimes you just can’t make it like grandma.
“I'm not sure why,” she said. “Maybe because the recipe says things like, you know, ‘use a medium oven and put in enough flour to make a stiff dough.’ What? How much is that? I think that there's a certain nostalgia for having the recipe as you had it or as you remember it, but it's really hard to recreate.”
For Kelsey, it’s more about the feeling of the dish than the food itself. It might not have all its original parts, but the spirit will always be there.
“Just because it’s not the same doesn’t mean I don’t want to continue to have it and enjoy it,” she said. “We’re connected in some way, regardless of if it involves every ingredient that it did the first time we had it.”
It took us a little under an hour to make our pot of comfort food. We spooned out a heaping dumpling onto a plate, made sure to add enough sauerkraut, not forgetting the mushroom gravy, of course, and dug in.
The pillowy dumplings, smell of caraway seeds and slight tang of sauerkraut will always feel like home — meat or no meat.