Some people cook from a place of hunger or desire. For New Canaan’s Anna Francese Gass, cooking is her passion and a tie to her family’s heritage. Growing up, her mother, Gina Crocco Francese, was a first generation immigrant from Calabria, Italy, and her mother prepared recipes from her own childhood to share her Italian culture with her children, thousands of miles away in the family’s new home in Rhode Island.
Gina, like many women before her, prepares her recipes from memory and when Francese Gass, a professional chef and recipe tester, realized she didn’t know how to prepare her mother’s dishes, she set out on a mission to record her family’s favorite meals.
“We started what we called the ‘Meatball Project,’ so it all started with a meatball,” Francese Gass joked. “We got in the kitchen, my mom and I. We cooked up all the recipes; I translated all the pinches into teaspoons and the handfuls into cups and we went from there.”
When Francese Gass recorded her family’s recipes, she thought her friends, who are also the children of immigrants, would want some of their family recipes written down as well.
“It’s mutually beneficial because I get to learn all these recipes from around the world and all my friends get a recorded recipe. So I sent out an email, just hoping to get five or six people to respond and instead I probably got 20 responses.” she said. “Everyone was ready to sign up their mom, so I started making appointments, going around the country, getting all these recipes written down and I put them down on a blog.”
A project that began with a meatball evolved into her cookbook “Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women,” which was released at the end of April. The book features more than 100 recipes from dozens of women from around the world who shared their immigration stories and recipes with Francese Gass.
“It’s a cookbook, absolutely, but it’s also a collection of really dynamic and interesting stories so I think that my greatest hope is that this book doesn’t get dumped on your bookshelf, it ends up on your coffee table and that you read some of the stories along with the recipes that you tried. I’m really proud of the women that contributed to this book and some of the stories will really amaze you,” she said.
Francese Gass began recording the women’s stories while on her visit with one of her friend’s mothers.
“I said, ‘Nelly, why did you come to the U.S.?’ And she told me her beautiful immigration story. I was jotting the recipe down in a notebook on one side and on the other side I was writing her story. It had many elements that were similar to my mom’s,” she said. “It made the recipe even more rich to know the woman behind it and why she came here.”
While crisscrossing the country, Francese Gass found all of the women were humbled by her interest in their recipes. Even though the women made different types of food or used different styles of cooking, Francese Gass said they all shared a desire to share their culture. “They all cook from a place of love and care and I know that might sound cliche or hokey but it is the truth. None of these women cook for accolades or post it on Instagram or for any other sort of reward,” she said. “They didn’t want anyone in their family — their children, their future generations, their grandchildren — to forget where they came from.”
Francese Gass claims food is “magic” because it has the ability to transport people. She said that by providing comfort the women she spoke to were able to feel safer in their new country by recreating meals from their homeland. “When these women came here in a new land, speaking a new language, trying to get a job, trying to raise American children and all the different challenges they faced everytime they recreated the dishes of their mothers, they were transported back, they felt like they were back in their home countries. It created that safe haven in the comfort of their home,” she said.
During the four and a half years Francese Gass worked on her book, she found herself challenged as she studied each recipe with each of the women featured in her project. “When you’re cooking with a home cook, they have all kinds of little things they do that maybe their mother taught them or they remember their grandmother doing and anytime you make a new dish, it’s a challenge,” she said. She added that she looked forward to the challenge and noted that she learned far more than recipes from the ladies. Interviewing and cooking with the diverse group of immigrant women taught her perspective through their experiences. “I think the most important thing I learned is that while we all might seem very different, we’re also the same. We all love our children, we all love our parents and we want a better life.”
Francese Gass will be conducting readings and book signings in the area. On May 5, she will be at Rosie Restaurant in New Canaan for brunch and Stamford’s Fortina Restaurant on May 9 for dinner. She will have signings at the Hartford Barnes & Noble on May 7, the New Canaan Library on May 15 and Elm Street Books in New Canaan on June 6.
For more information about the book and Francese Gass’ tour dates, visit annasheirloomkitchen.com.