What do you remember your grandmother cooking, Knedle, Lait du poule Mechi, or Molokheya? These are just some of the recipes included in the Grandmas Project, a collaborative web-series backed by UNESCO. Professional filmmakers create short movies of their grandmothers’ cooking to share online. Non-filmmakers can also participate by posting photos and stories about their grandmas. All of the films have the same appealing domesticity that’s been key to the success of cooking programmes like Bake Off. The difference here is that the Grandmas Project is the real thing, messier and more poignant. We watch Mamie Yoda giggle as her grandson’s carefully prepared “lait du poule” splits. Nano decides that the meat she’s chosen for Molokheya is “not fit” and fishes it out of the broth. “And it doesn’t taste any different?” Her grandson asks. “Not at all sweetie,” she tells him. In the end of course, the films are not really about recipes at all. Instead the project is an exploration of the ways that family ties, history, and culture are passed down through food.
The Grandmas Project is the brainchild of French filmmaker Jonas Pariente. The idea came out of a film project when Pariente was studying sociology at the University of Paris. “I wanted to explore my family heritage and my cultural background by portraying [my grandmas]. It wasn’t necessarily about food at the time,” he says. Both his grandmothers had migrated to France in the 1950s, one from Poland and the other Egypt. “My relationships with my grandmothers were much simpler than with my Mum,” he tells me. “For me it was the right generational distance to ask questions about my family.” He abandoned the project after being accepted into film school in New York but the idea stuck. Later, trying to sell documentaries he asked himself what he really wanted to film. “That night when I was searching for things I was passionate about, it came very easily.”
“My grandmas were really the centre of the culture I inherited, the Polish culture and the Egyptian culture,” he continues. “And for me, I think the most significant part of the culture is food, even though I’m very attached to the sounds of the languages. I love to hear Polish or Yiddish and I love to hear Arabic. But clearly my most significant anchor is the food.” Part of the link between family and food is clearly the time spent together that cooking entails. There is a lovely intimacy to the movies, helped along by the use of GoPros which bring the audience straight into the kitchen. The obvious affection between the filmmakers and their grandmas is ultimately what makes the project so appealing.
Each film is a reflection of the filmmakers’ very different histories and preoccupations. A theme that runs through all of them, however, is the relationship between culture and identity. The Molokheya recipe by Jonas’ grandma is part of the legacy of the now dispersed Egyptian Jewish community. Why is there a strong connection between history and food? I ask him. “I would make the link between culture and food for sure, but about history and food? I would probably take it the other way,” he tells me. “The exercise I suggest to people is to go to your grandma and ask her to share recipes with you, it’s really the doorway to more stories. So I don’t know about ‘history’ with a capital ‘H’ but the sure thing is that if you start to collect your family’s recipes, in a book or in a film or in an audio recorder, that’s a very natural path to larger stories. And depending on what your grandmother has to tell or your family’s history, it’s very easy for one dish or one recipe to open up to a larger and larger history, like in my case.”
That concern with history shows up in each of the films. Iva Radivojevic films her grandmother Dragica Karazija making Knedle, a sweet plum-filled dumpling. As she cooks they talk about the dissolution of Yugoslavia. “You went to Cyprus in June of ’92, just after Grandpa’s death,” says Dragica. “In a month’s time you were gone.” So many of these films are reminders of the private lives affected by social change and political turmoil. Jonas nods when I ask whether people with complicated family histories more likely to become involved. “I noticed it, in terms of the people who write to me and tell me they like the project. Generally speaking, migrants and the children of migrants are sensitive to that. But the thing is, nowadays, I think we’re all migrants in some way. There are so many more people migrating within two generations or mixed-marriages so that cultural mix makes food very significant. Or makes it play a significant role in the passing down of a culture.”
“Jews,” he tells me, “are very sensitive to the project because it’s the one thing that we bring from all of the places that we’ve travelled across.” While most of the films focus on stories of exile and immigration, there are also other kinds of transitions. This is most obvious in the film by Irvin Anneix about his Mamie Yoda. “In that film, from France in Brittany, that grandma who was coming from a rural background and she hasn’t really moved out from Brittany,” says Jonas. “She doesn’t talk about migration and she doesn’t have experience in terms of migration, but her story and the fact that Irvin lives in a very urban environment, tells another history of the history of urbanisation in the 20th century and how we relate to our rural background.”
The Grandmas Project also provides a rare look at elderly women’s experiences. “Generally speaking, I believe we can take a lot more advantage of what elders have to share. Not necessarily only women but just older people feeling isolated because that’s how our societies are made,” Jonas tells me. “Especially in the west…Just the fact that their [older people] stories are being told, for me is a source of pride.” And what did his grandma think, I ask? “She didn’t see it! Her goal was to help me succeed in life. So, you know, when I asked her, can I come with a journalist, can you cook that, can someone call you on the phone, she’s just says “okay, if it helps you, then I’ll do it for sure.” He adds, “I think she was flattered that people would call her to say, oh I saw Jonas’s film. And I think that also, the film travelled within the Egyptian Jewish community, in Canada and in the US and so she got calls from very distant cousins or old friends. So that was quite nice for her.”
The project is currently looking for new films and has assembled a jury has which includes The Guardian’s head of documentaries Charlie Philips and UNESCO’s Cécile Duvelle. “I think the project has huge potential because it touches several things that are quite important right now,” Jonas tells me. “It goes back to…how do we relate to our elders, how can we collect their stories and experience? I’m doing it through food and through films.” He continues, “all the filmmakers were all very thankful after filming, after spending that, usually it’s a day or half a day, with their grandma. Because it’s moments that are very magical because usually when you see your grandma maybe your family is around, you don’t necessarily spend your whole day with your grandma, when you’re an adult, so spending that moment has apparently been quite a great experience for each of the filmmakers. But I’ve also had friends in Paris who said, you know, your project made me think I should go and see my grandma, and go and spend an afternoon with her. And they tell me about it, and the fact they felt so good about it is good enough for me.”