She can almost smell her mother’s kitchen, steamed up with peppers and brine. And the longer she stares at the recipe, the more nostalgic she feels. “Brooks Avenue Fish Stew,” it reads, lovingly titled for Lennon Flowers’ childhood home in North Carolina. Her mother never wrote this down, even though the dish was a holiday ritual, so she took the tradition with her when she died unexpectedly 17 years ago — until her family spent hours of trial and error to rebuild it as best they could. “Reconstructed from memory,” reads a parenthetical.

Later, as Flowers gathers the fresh cod, scallops, shrimp, diced tomatoes, clam juice, olive oil and seasonings that the digital recipe calls for, her mom might as well be there beside her. She can even visualize her movements, tossing diced onions into a stock pot until they hiss, cracking open shrimp shells and fussing over that last dash of red pepper flakes. Flowers adds slices of lemon to the steel pot and lets it simmer, thrilled that she can finally share this tradition. “My mom’s grandson, he will only meet her through the stories I tell him,” she says. “And one of those stories is the reason that we make seafood stew every Christmas Eve.”

Her pain was still fresh in 2014, when Flowers co-founded a nonprofit called The Dinner Party to help those grieving the death of a loved one to meet over shared meals. More than 9,000 people participated in the organization’s different programs last year. “The creation of a meal and a really beautiful experience becomes an entry point into talking not only about death but celebrating a life,” she says. “What we need more than anything right now are opportunities to lower the barriers to connection. And food, precisely because of its familiarity and intimacy, is an amazing way to do that.”

Flowers, of course, is not alone. She’s not much of a recreational cook; she only intends to make her mother’s stew once a year. That’s true for most of us these days, between school and careers and our kids’ own hectic schedules. Balanced against the abundant conveniences that offer daily shortcuts to basic sustenance, that means we don’t need to spend our days in the kitchen any more, and it doesn’t always make sense. But her experience reminds us that now and then, the old ways offer more than what we need to get through the day. But why is it that a list of instructions and ingredients can impact us so deeply?

Food can trigger memories of past meals, memories of eating that same food another time with other people. Food is special because it’s so intimate.

The human impulse to preserve recipes is old and at times mysterious. The earliest known examples are etched in cuneiform letters on a cracked clay tablet believed to be almost 4,000 years old, housed in the Babylonian Collection of Yale’s Peabody Museum. The slab details 25 meals in Akkadian, a language common during the first empire of Mesopotamia. Their simple structure mirrors any modern recipe: Split the pigeon in half — add other meat. Prepare the water, add fat and salt to taste; breadcrumbs, onion, samidu, leeks and garlic (first soak the herbs in milk). When it is cooked, it is ready to serve.

Many still try to replicate these ancient meals — without measurements or cooking times — and share their findings through blog posts and video tutorials. We seem driven to share what we learn, and recipes are one medium for transmitting acquired knowledge and the wisdom of experience. Our recipes also tend to learn from our environment. “American Cookery,” the first cookbook published in the United States, mingled British and North American ingredients. Later, cookbooks offered isolated pioneers out West a kind of companionship, offering advice from meal prep to caring for the sick in the style of friends or teachers.

The practice hasn’t changed much. Americans buy about 20 million cookbooks every year. Between TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, more than 25 million posts bear the #recipe hashtag. A host of smartphone applications and websites, such as Paprika and BigOven, are devoted to storing recipes. None of which even begins to account for recipes exchanged among friends and family. Survey results published by Statista in 2021 found that 44 percent of millennials and members of Generation Z find meal inspiration in family recipes.

We don’t just share with our peers; we also share across generations. In middle America, it has long been a common practice to archive favorite recipes from loved ones who’ve passed on. This might take the shape of a typewritten, photocopied collection in a three-ring binder, a small chest of index cards organized by type of dish, or the ward cookbook that was once a tradition in Latter-day Saint congregations. In recent years, prized casseroles and other dishes have appeared in hundreds of obituaries, a living homage to the culinary feats of the deceased.

I’m struck by the story of Constance Joan Bradbury, of Fairbanks, Alaska, where she volunteered for the local FamilySearch Center, sifting through records to help others to discover their ancestry. “Connie loved to make casseroles,” reads her obituary on “In lieu of flowers, and in honor of her, make a casserole for someone you love or for someone in need.” Or Martha Kathryn Kirkham Andrews, once-president of the Cache County Chapter of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, whose obituary describes Sunday dinners of “mashed potatoes with pot roasts and chocolate Texas sheet cake with nuts.” Her husband’s gravestone in Logan, Utah, is even engraved with her famous chocolate fudge recipe.

Meals have long been connected to death and mourning. Ancient Egyptians painted scenes of food making in tombs so the dead could have food in the afterlife. For the Day of the Dead, Mexicans leave traditional dishes like tamales and pan de muerto (a type of sweet bread) on altars for their deceased loved ones, intended to draw their spirits back to the world. Buddhists in Korea celebrate Yeongsanjae, congratulating the dead on entering heaven with a tea ceremony and a ritual meal of rice cakes and fruits. Greek Orthodox Christians still pray for and reflect on the dead by preparing koliva (a spiced dessert with wheat berries, nuts and fruit). In Judaism, visitors to those sitting shiva — seven days grieving a first-degree relative at the home of the deceased — bring round-shaped foods like bagels symbolizing the circle of life. Across the Intermountain West, burials are often followed by luncheons, where “funeral potatoes” are a popular cheesy comfort food.

So why are certain recipes such an effective way to remember our loved ones? The answer to that starts with the human relationship with food itself.

“What we need more than anything right now are opportunities to lower the barriers to connection.”

Consider a scene from “In Search of Lost Time,” a seminal novel by 20th-century French author Marcel Proust. Marcel, the semifictional narrator, is overcome by the taste of an ordinary madeleine — a small, seashell-shaped sponge cake — dipped in lime-flower tea. “An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin,” he writes. A memory comes back to him: On Sunday mornings as a child, Marcel would greet his aunt Leonie in her bedroom, and she’d offer him a madeleine dipped in her tea. Now he could feel his aunt’s presence, even visualizing the flowers that once grew in her garden.

The olfactory nerve transmits smells and tastes directly to parts of the brain that handle our most difficult emotions. The olfactory nerve is located near the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure that regulates fear and imbues our memories with emotional meaning. Beside it, the seahorse-shaped hippocampus converts short- to long-term memory. Both are part of the limbic system, which is primarily tasked with our survival. No wonder olfactory memories are so powerful. Research shows that we still recognize smells 95 percent as often after a full year’s remove as we do within just 30 seconds. These memories also preserve their associations.

“Food can certainly trigger memories: memories of past meals, memories of eating that same food another time with other people,” says Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania whose focus is on the role of food in human life. “Food is special because it’s so intimate. It’s so personal. It’s so bodily related. And it’s inherently social because we’re exchanging food with others all the time.”

There are also chemical elements to these relationships. About 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. This neurotransmitter contributes to our sleep, appetite, emotion and pain responses. Also, our brains get flushed with dopamine — another brain chemical characterized by its contributions to motivation, satisfaction and pleasure — when we eat foods we crave, like sweets. This feels like a reward, but it also helps the hippocampus to transform short-term memories into the long term.

In the context of grief, these psychological and chemical reactions can soothe and sustain someone in mourning, all while keeping the memory of a lost loved one at the forefront. “Part of this is to counterbalance the negative thoughts or negative experiences we might associate with death, through a very sensory way that has a proven chemical reaction,” says Candi K. Cann, an associate professor of religion at Baylor University and editor of “Dying to Eat: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Food, Death, and the Afterlife.” The book is dedicated to her late mother: “My recipe box is my shrine to your memory.”

Family recipes rely on continuity — the ability to nourish across generations. It’s always grounded in who prepared this and why they still do it the way they’re doing it.

Kai-Sean Lee is taken aback when the woman emerges from the kitchen holding an empty green bottle with a long neck and thick body. The culinary arts professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and former pastry chef is studying eight families in Oklahoma for a study of food-related memories and cooking as a cultural heritage. She has offered to share the tool she uses to roll out noodles for her grandmother’s chicken soup recipe. “Grandma used to use a wine bottle,” she says. “If that wasn’t available, use an olive oil bottle.”

Lee spotted the same pragmatic mentality across all the families he surveyed. Unlike the recipes penned by chefs at commercial restaurants, family recipes rely on continuity — the ability to nourish across generations. “None of it was about the flavor. None of it was about the technique, but more so about the people that reminded them of the context that they were from,” he says. “It’s always grounded in who prepared this, why they still do it the way they’re doing.”

The cerebral processes involved in food preparation fall under the category of executive functions, which help the brain plan and control thoughts and actions steered toward a particular goal. Those same functions also help the brain to manage frustration and control unpleasant feelings — like the pain of losing a loved one. Since the act of cooking is a creative one, it’s capable of forging new neural pathways, known to quell stress in dementia patients and even slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s. Which is to say that following a recipe helps us remember just as much as the food we make.

The first time I recreated my Hungarian father’s chicken paprikash, I wasn’t grieving, but I might have been a little homesick as a college student living four hours away. I’d seen my dad make this meal countless times as a child but never paid much attention to its rudimentary parts, much less its origin. I laid out my ingredients on the grimy kitchen counter that I shared with four other girls: chicken thighs, a Hungarian wax pepper, good quality paprika. Hungarian recipes are traditionally written in first-person plural, meaning instructions rely heavily on the word “we.” It helped me to feel this was a shared experience, even though I was doing it alone.

As the meat hissed and sizzled, it struck me how clearly I could see my dad. I saw the paper towels he’d keep within reach to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Even the plastic mug with the random pirate flag he would drink from. It felt like he was in the room with me. Which made me wonder what runs through his own head when he cooks dishes from his childhood. I imagine he sees his parents, neither of whom are still alive to critique or compliment his creations like he does mine.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Lennon Flowers’ mother died. She died 17 years ago, not 12 years ago.

This story appears in the April 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.