There’s nothing like home cooking, especially if it’s your grandmother’s. But so often, the unique histories of our predecessors are lost to us when they are, which is why French filmmaker Jonas Pariente is ensuring their stories (and recipes) live on.
Grandma’s Project, a site that hosts the recipes of global grandmothers (and hopes to host up to 30 from grandmothers around the world), stands as a symbol of the importance of retaining the living heritage of our elders, not only honouring their cooking but their customs.
The project, which has hosted a successful Kickstarter campaign and also secured the backing of UNESCO, was inspired by Jonas’ own appreciation for the quiet wisdom of elder family members.
His late maternal grandmother, who moved to France from USSR-occupied Poland in the 50’s and his paternal grandmother, who migrated to France from Egypt in 1957, still have considerable influence on Jonas.
“I guess [my brother, sister and I] were always connected to different identities from early on,” Jonas says of his childhood. “We were exposed to different languages and we were of course exposed to different food cultures because from Egypt to Poland, you can imagine the gap. This diversity nurtured me from the very beginning and for me, this project is a way to explore this but to also open the discussion to other people about where do we come from… and how food is an amazing platform to discuss that.”
His paternal grandmother, who he credits as the “main source” of inspiration for the project due to her generosity with her time and in her cooking, was the first grandmother to be featured as part of his series (serving up Jonas’ favourite recipe to the masses, no less). But how did it move from being a passion project to a UNESCO-backed cultural initiative?
It was the result of soul searching three years ago that helped Jonas decide to take matters into his own hands.
“I wasn’t really happy with my career,” he tells Collective Hub. “I had done [a] documentary before that was quite successful in festivals and I was writing more documentaries and I couldn’t finance any of them. It was a bit frustrating and so I kind of had a sleepless night where I was trying to re-connect with myself and think of the project I would really care about.”
It was a film he’d already produced that plagued him through those early hours – the exploration of his heritage through food with his grandmothers as both culinary and cultural guides. When Jonas decided to revisit the idea, to fill the void of his maternal grandmother who had passed away, he reached out to filmmaker friends to fill the void.
“When I was in New York [in 2006 and 2009], it was when Facebook started, when Kickstarter started and LinkedIn was kind of popular so it was quite natural for me to imagine something that was kind of crowd sourced.”
After trying to finance the project the old fashioned way (pitching his idea to production companies in his home country of France), Jonas realised he needed the funding not just for financial backing – but to give him the confidence to push on with the project he so desperately wanted to finish.
“I figured that if a group of random strangers financed it, then it would kind of validate my idea that the project makes sense and people would want to see it.”
One successful Kickstarter campaign (and over US$21,000 later), Jonas was ready to give it everything he had.
“There was the encouragement I missed, the last spark I needed to go forward,” Jonas says. “[While the money] is really nothing to produce 30 films… it gave me the motivation and the responsibility in a way to move forward and also I could spend a bit of money on taking interns and making a useful website.”
Securing financial backing also helped Jonas secure a UNESCO patronage for the project, a huge step forward in validating how important the project is for the wider cultural conversation.
“What I was advocating to UNESCO was that if people from all parts of the world collectively share recipes and the stories attached to recipes of our families, then it kind of constitutes a part of world heritage or intangible world heritage,” Jonas explains. “I think it creates an identity to the project that people who contribute understand that their part of something bigger.”
Now, the site is calling for contributors and it’s not just limited to filmmakers, but anyone keen to through a spotlight on their nan. The main objective being, as Jonas points out, to reconnect with your elders and help them tell their story.
“What I feel very proud of is that the project is kind of the little push that makes people [reconnect with their grandparents]. “People actually thank me because they spend that moment with their grandmas or they spend time thinking of their grandmas if they’re not alive anymore and being at the origin of that moment is really splendid for me.”
“And I think the main lesson that I share through my own experience is that it doesn’t take much to actually call your grandmother or visit her and obviously, and when you’re with your grandma and you talk about the recipe or you share a recipe, it’s so easy to then discuss about other stuff, about where your families from and anything, it’s such a natural thing once you’ve started the discussion.”
And using food as an initial connecting thread is as bond as powerful as any.
“It’s very easy to reconnect with tonnes of memories with just one bite of something,” Jonas muses. “When I eat herring and drink vodka, I just feel like my grandparents are here with me and I remember the apartment where they used to live. I think that’s the power [of] food.”
If you’d like to share your grandmother’s gastronomical genius, visit Grandma’s Project.