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What Was Never Lost

by Magnolia
Published on March 15, 2023

MJ What Was Never Lost

Casey Corn is helping families reclaim so much more than a missing recipe.

As told to Charis Dietz

Photography courtesy of Magnolia Network

Portrait photographs by Ashleigh Amoroso

Story from Magnolia Journal Header

I’ve been called a food detective. And that makes sense.

I gather clues, ask dozens and dozens of questions, follow threads back through family roots—all to solve a mystery. My mission is to re-create beloved family recipes that have been lost with time, lost because the person who made that dish—and all the comfort that came with it—is now gone.

Usually the request is to recapture a dish “that Grandma always made” and to figure out just how she did it. But whatever the relationship between the requester and the original cook, the sought-after recipe is always from someone who was the glue of their family, binding all the various and oddly shaped pieces together. Someone whose love brought everyone to the table, no matter how simple the fare.

One of my own grandmothers was not a gourmet by any stretch of the imagination. And yet—while I’ve tasted amazing foods around the world and written 140 pages on olive oil alone—I still get an insatiable craving for her Bisquick waffles, smothered in Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup, or her coffee cake that I’d swear was a Betty Crocker mix. After my grandma passed away, I tried to figure out her recipe for gefilte fish that she’d bring to every Passover meal with our family. Turns out, she would just buy a $3 jar of gefilte fish and add sautéed carrots and onions to it. It wasn’t her recipes that were special—it was how she made us feel when she fed us.

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And while I’m passionate about doing the legwork to re-create the lost recipes for these families as precisely as possible, I’ve come to realize that what I’m really trying to recapture is the experience. How they used to feel when they’d open their grandma’s door and the smell of her freshly made matzo ball soup would wrap around them like a bear hug. Or how they laughed when everyone in their giant family would raise their red plastic Solo cups to toast their matriarch and her perfect ambrosia salad.

Those good feelings and memories—that’s ultimately what I’m chasing when I ask: What was the color of the sauce? What do you remember in her pantry? Did it sound like this when she stirred it? Where did your grandma live during that time? Where did she shop for groceries? Does this smell right?

The truth is, we’ll never really know if we execute the ingredients and all the steps of the old recipe 100 percent correctly. The only person who could tell us is gone. And memories are faulty. Nostalgia clouds recollections. There have been times when everything in my formal chef ’s training is telling me that there had to be bread crumbs in those meatballs to get the texture the family is describing, even though the family is convinced that Grandmother never used bread crumbs in her cooking. But I’ll go ahead and try a half dozen different ways of making the meatballs without the crumbs to get the texture they remember. Because this is their journey back to those sacred-to-them moments and memories, and I feel lucky to be on it. So I’ll try to slow down my process and meet them where they’re at. More often than not, we end up back at the bread crumbs, but at least we walked together to get there.

“Those good feelings and memories—that’s ultimately what I’m chasing…”

-Casey Corn

I’ve learned that often I have to let go of myself, of what I know is the technically correct way to prepare certain dishes, if I’m going to truly serve these families in their quest to experience their loved one’s food once again. So Grandma burned the potatoes every time, and that’s how we get to that flavor? I’m OK with that. After all, food is love. It’s family, culture, and identity—it touches everything about us.

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And what I want to see happen when a family sits down and finally tastes their loved one’s once-lost dish again is for it all to come rushing back—the flavors, the smells, the sounds, but most of all, the reminder that they belong to this crew around the table. They belong to the legacy of that loving home cook, and to their own unfolding story.

About Casey: Casey Corn is a classically trained chef and a culinary anthropologist. You can find her on Magnolia Network as the host of Recipe Lost & Found.