Something about the flavor of boxed yellow cake and canned chocolate frosting will take me back to my childhood in a way nothing else can. The fake-butter cupcake and the fake-chocolate frosting with a smattering of sprinkles? Heaven on a plate.
I don’t recall exactly when I had boxed cupcakes for the first time, and I certainly appreciate the beauty of homemade cake and frosting, but I strongly associate the yellow cupcakes capped with chocolate frosting with fondness and nostalgia. This is, for me, a ritual recipe. When I want to step back into childhood, a box of yellow cake mix and a can of chocolate frosting will get the job done.
In the same way, there are recipes that have become rituals in my home, and today I want to encourage you to tap into the culture of your family and discover your own ritual recipes. A ritual recipe is a dish you prepare at a certain point in the year that signals something significant to your family. The sense memory of a ritual recipe is very powerful and can instantly bring to mind a particular season or occasion or feeling.
To state the obvious, ritual recipes require that you make a certain recipe repeatedly at a certain time in order for them to become a signal or a sign of a certain season. Sometimes ritual recipes occur organically without a conscious thought. And other times they are crafted with purpose, designed for the long-term recalling of a special event or season.
In our family, for example, I do not make Chili before Halloween. October 31 is when I cook our inaugural batch of Chili, and it ushers in the fall season with the familiar flavors of beans and meat and fritos.
In the spirit of modeling this idea, here are few more examples of my family’s ritual recipes.
Ina’s Beef Bourguignon is a ritual recipe for me in January, signifying both winter and my birthday. Beef Bourguignon is my favorite meal, and I have enjoyed it for my birthday on several occasions. It also is the perfect cozy dinner, full of rich meaty notes and a luxurious broth that warms you to the bone.
Ina’s Lemon Fusilli and Smitten Kitchen’s Skirt Steak Salad signify spring and longer days, and it wouldn’t be Easter without Deviled Eggs. I always feel like it is officially summer when I bake a strawberry cream pie or make homemade ice cream. Memorial Day means grilled hot dogs and potato chips. The flavors of Macaroni and Cheese remind my children of the First Day Of School, and Thanksgiving wouldn’t be right without dressing and homemade rolls. Christmas Eve is all about a giant cheeseboard. And New Year’s Day brings Black Eyed Peas, greens, and cornbread.
Ritual recipes do not have to be cooked from scratch in order to work their magic. Maybe it is Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and a sleeve of Saltines when your child is sick that will remind them of being cared for and loved well when they were under the weather. Maybe it’s pizza and popcorn on Friday for family movie night. Maybe it’s the first popsicle of summer, the first mug of hot cocoa in December, or the first fire pit s’more of the season that will become ritual recipes in your family. All of them work.
The idea isn’t to create something fussy, but to lean into the pattern of predictability in what you eat and serve at a specific time or season. These small deposits over time is how we fashion our idea of home and how we create space for the future recalling of memories.