Pass the Pasta
by Maureen Taylor
It’s that time of year when food becomes the focus of our lives. Not the everyday meals and snacks, but those time-tested traditional treats made by our ancestors. Reunions connect us to past generations through the timeless and life-sustaining activity of eating.
Do you have family recipes?
Once or twice a year I take out my recipe box and try to recreate the smells and tastes from my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes not, but each ingredient reminds me of the link between them and me.
Pass on the tradition
My paternal grandmother never used a cookbook because she made the same meals for so many years she didn’t need one. Only one of her recipes still exists because someone asked her to recreate the meal while they watched her make it. It’s her chowder recipe that survives because it’s a family favorite for summer meals. If you have a cook like my Nana in your family, take the time to save her recipes. Either work beside her while she’s concocting it, or capture her on video as she stirs the pot so you can recreate her actions later.
Study cookbook history
On the other side of the family, my mother has my grandmother’s cookbook from when she got married in 1912. Her notations in the margins mark the amounts and sometimes contain a comment about the recipe. In Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote (Palgrave, 2002, $18.95), author Janet Theophano examines four centuries worth of cookbooks and learns a few things about the women who wrote them. Next time you’re in a relative’s kitchen, inquire about family cookbooks and ask to look at them. Your great-grandmother might have left more than a few stray crumbs in the pages of her favorite. Inspired by Theophano’s book, I’ve begun to add notes to my cookbooks about when I’ve made certain dishes, who came to dinner and what I thought about the meal.
Create a Family Cookbook
If you don’t have a cookbook or recipes in your family, get started today using Kathy Steligo’s Meals and Memories: How to Create Keepsake Cookbooks (Carlo Press, 1999, $15.95); or if you’re into scrapbooking your family history, look at the pages in the November 2005 Memory Makers magazine. Snap a picture of the dish and tell the story behind it in an illustrated cookbook/scrapbook.
What about ethnic food traditions?
Every family has ethnic or cultural food traditions based on their point of origin. Perhaps your grandmother passed on her sweet potato pie recipe or you’re still using the holiday foods prepared for generations. I’m part French-Canadian, which means I’ve seen my share of blood sausage and head cheese, and I’ve eaten plenty of my grandmother’s Christmas Eve meat pie or tourtier. Not all families retain the food history of their immigrant ancestors. Sometimes the past gets lost but that doesn’t mean you can’t recreate it.
Explore ethnic tastes by visiting ethnic restaurants in your area or by serving up recipes from American Ethnic Cookbook for Students by Mark H. Zanger (Oryx, 2001 $43.95) or The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors: Recipes You Should Have Gotten From Your Grandmother by Jeff Smith (William Morrow, 1990, $19.95).
If you don’t know what types of foods are traditional to your ethnicity or immigrant culture, consult Zanger’s book to read a short history of each ethnic group, along with recipes various groups introduced into our cuisine.
Use an online search engine, entering your ethnicity followed by “food” (for example, “Irish food” or “Lebanese food”) to find recipes, restaurants and suppliers of special ingredients.
If you haven’t discovered your immigrant origins, indulge in regional gastronomy. The roots of those foods descend from the recipes brought over by immigrants or made by native populations.
Explore your family history by munching your way through genealogical cravings for new dates and facts using any of the ethnicity-specific cookbooks on the market, such as Margaret Johnson’s Irish Heritage Cookbook (Chronicle, 1999, $19.95), Christopher Trotter’s The Scottish Kitchen (Aurum, 2004, $29.95), or a variety of cultures in Sheila Lukins’s All Around the World (Workman Publishing, 2004, $18.95).
Family food is about meals prepared from ancestral traditions, influences of regional style and the longevity of historical favorites. Try experimenting with the past using cookbooks by Bear Wallow Books (7172 N. Keystone Ave, Suite A, Indianapolis IN 46240) that duplicate old recipes using modern cooking methods. Meals our ancestors ate depended on seasonal availability of ingredients and food preservation methods. For instance, fresh peach pies and cobblers were a summer event unless the cook canned some fruit for winter.
At your next reunion ask relatives to bring their family recipes and provide blank cards or have extra copies for exchanging. Personalize recipes with stories about the person who gave it to you or the ancestor who first made it. Add photographs of the food or the people associated with it. You’ll be able to turn your next reunion into a gastronomic family history fest … just don’t forget the antacids.
About the author
Maureen A. Taylor is the author of Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs (Family Tree Books, 2005) and Scrapbooking Your Family History (Betterway, 2003).
Corps of Discovery Food
The Food Journal of Lewis & Clark: Recipes for an Expedition by Mary Gunderson, (History Cooks® 215 Walnut Street, Ste. 205, PO Box 708 Yankton SD 57078-0709; 877-581-8422; Eat.Well@HistoryCooks.com; www.HistoryCooks.com)
Author Mary Gunderson practices paleocuisineology®, an entertaining and fact-solid approach that brings history alive through cooking. As an author, food historian and lecturer, Gunderson highlights great adventures in American history and what people ate. Her other books include a children’s title, Cooking on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The Food Journal of Lewis & Clark begins with Thomas Jefferson, the president who hired the explorers. He loved food and his garden. The book progresses as the expedition did, providing recipes inspired by food the explorers encountered or mentioned in their journals, reworked for the modern cook. Recipes include Corn and Dried Meat Soup, William Clark’s Birthday Fruit Salad, Fort Clatsop Salmon Chowder, Roasted Buffalo with Sage and Grill-Roasted Turkey with Sausage Stuffing.
Gunderson provides historical tidbits, reprints appropriate entries from the expedition’s journals and shows how much the Corps learned from the American Indians they met along the way. Lewis and Clark wrote about food almost every day. Collecting and preparing food was part of their entertainment, as well as nourishment.