A sweet potato pie tradition that almost wasn't, and other stories of unforgettable family recipes

Updated 8:50 AM ET, Wed November 24, 2021

(CNN)The holiday season is upon us, many of us have prepared our menus for the holiday dinners and parties. Some of you may be pulling grandma's braciole recipe steeped in tomato sauce or that creamy garlic mash your mom made every Thanksgiving. Or you may be undecided about using a tried and true roast turkey recipe your family has passed down for decades or frying something new.

Whatever it is you are cooking, we all have memorable stories about the food that has been prepared and the recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation.
These are those stories. The ones about a certain dessert that is now being made by their grandson or the ones about treasured recipes that were forged through war or hardship.
It's not the dishes themselves that have any magical powers, but the memories that come flooding back every time we take a bite.

If you aren't a fan of dates you still may want to take a bite

Barbara Rhea, 78 | Beavercreek, OH
Left: From left clockwise, Barbara Rhea's grandmother, Mildred Covert, in 1908, Covert's original date nut pinwheel recipe, Covert in 1956 and Rhea at age 10. Right: Date nut pinwheels. (Courtesy Barbara Rhea)
Barbara Rhea has been cooking date nut pinwheel cookies since she was eight when she and her four siblings went to live with her grandmother.
Rhea said her grandmother baked the cookies all the time and she would sit in the kitchen and watch her make the sweet creations, which had been written on a piece of paper around the time she married in the early 1900s. Her family has been using the original recipe to make her cookies ever since.
When her grandmother died in 1957, the responsibility to make the cookies full of dates and walnuts fell to her aunt.
"She made them every Christmas and then my aunt took over... and then somehow I got interested in doing it," Rhea said. "My aunt passed away in 1991 so since then, I'm the only one who has been doing it."
She said she's already looking to pass the recipe to the next generation, with her daughter and two of her grandsons interested in continuing the tradition.
"People will say I don't like dates, but when they eat these, they like these," she said.
And her proof is when she replaced the dough with crescent rolls and finished as a top-five dessert at the 1988 Pillsbury Bake-off.

A sweet potato pie tradition that almost wasn't

Sheila Connors, 69 & Jasmine Myers, 66 | Maple Shade, NJ
Left: Sheila Connors' sweet potato pie. Right: Sheila's mother, Inetta Connors, holds a rolling pin as she bakes. (Courtesy Sheila Connors)
Sheila Connors' mom was a cook and a baker all of her life and her famous Thanksgiving dessert was her sweet potato pie.
Connors and her niece Jasmine Myers said no one was allowed in the kitchen while she was cooking, and she would make 10 pies every year for the guests to take home.
"It wasn't just sweet potato pies, but it was the feature, if you will," Myers said. "That was the highlight and everyone went home with their own."
For years, no one knew how to make the pie expect for Connors' mom, until one day, when Connors was 31, her mom called her into the kitchen.
"I thought there was going to be a recipe or something to follow, but no, she dictated off all the measurements," Connors said. "Taste testing as she went along, she knew when she needed to add more of any particular spice or sugar."
Connors did her best to write everything down, so there would at least be instructions to follow.
Little did Connors know her mom would pass away the next year.
It isn't lost on the women the tradition could have stopped if Connors had not been called into the kitchen.
Connors plans to share the recipe with one of her nieces, so the recipe can continue on.

The cheesecake recipe to appease even non-cheesecake lovers

Gary Brown, 65 | Hollywood, FL
Left:  The original recipe given to Gary Brown in 1981. Right: Brown cooks his cheesecake at his home the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2021. (Courtesy Stephanie Cosby)
In 1981, Gary Brown worked at a summer camp as he waited to take his board exams to become a registered nurse. He swapped recipes with another counselor at the camp. The cheesecake recipe he received would go on to become his signature dish, even 40 years later he is still making it every year for the holidays.
"It was my signature contribution to the holiday parties and meals," he said. "All of a sudden, all these years later, I generated my own tradition and didn't even realize it."
He said he still has the original piece of paper with the recipe written on it, although it is now well-worn with some vanilla stains on it. While he has made some tweaks to the pie's crust over the years, he hasn't changed anything else.
"It's my shtick," he said. "It's what I do at the holidays to give back."
The recipe has also been a favorite among non-cheesecake lovers, his wife included.

Her mother passed away in 1987. The year before, she made her a cookbook with favorite family recipes

Vicky Dorsey Ott, 59 | Cincinnati, OH
Left: The Sour Cream Cinnamon Coffee Cake, one of Vicky Dorsey Ott's favorites. Right: The cookbook that was made in 1986. (Courtesy Vicky Dorsey Ott)
For Christmas 1986, Vicky Dorsey Ott received a gift she would cherish forever -- a handmade cookbook from her mother titled "...and stir in a little love." Her mother, June Hairston Dorsey, died in February 1987 after battling cancer. She was 50 years old.
"This was one of the things she did before she died," said Dorsey Ott, who added her four siblings also received the cookbook. "She passed down these recipes."
The book is filled with a variety of family favorite recipes with commentary on the entries where her mom added notes like "Vicky made this for class." Each note associated with a memory from childhood.