This article first appeared in Discovering Family History Magazine, July/August 2008. No copying without the author’s permission is permitted.
Scientists say that smell is the sense most tied to memory, and , of course, taste is linked. Think of your strongest childhood memories. Pancakes at Grandma’s? A hotdog at a baseball game? The smell of popcorn at a movie theater? The grape Popsicle you had after the doctor gave you stitches? We have such powerful memories tied to what we eat and drink, so it’s logical that our ancestors did also. Many people preserved their recipes and handed them down. Food, like many other factors of everyday life, helps to define people. Discovering family recipes is one way to find out who our ancestors were both economically and socially.
If You Don’t Have the Family Cookbook
If you don’t have a cookbook lovingly handed down to you, there are still ways to learn about what your ancestors ate. Once you find the recipes, you might even want to recreate some of them for a full sensory experience. At the Family Web Cafe, at http://www.familywebcafe.com, you can try some ethnic recipes.
Examples of Ethnic Foods to Try
Irish? Try shepherd’s pie with ground beef, mashed potatoes and cheese. Greek? Souvlaki might satisfy with its marinated meat, Greek olives and feta cheese. Those with Italian ancestry might like to try their hand at making stromboli. Can’t you just smell those amazing dishes right now?
Finding Historical Cookbooks
Early settlers to North America may have brought ingredients and recipes with them, but these were soon adapted to the food supply at hand. Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. at http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/, is one source for finding these recipes. The project, run by Michigan State University, is an online collection of cookbooks dating from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. The advanced search allows you to find regional and ethnic recipes. Click on “Browse the Collection”, then “By Interest”. Chances are, if your ancestors lived in the same region where these recipes came from, they ate similar things.
What Food Can Tell You
You can learn about the manners, customs and domestic arts of a group of people just by reading a few of these books. For instance, in Mary At the Farm and Book of Recipes Complied During Her Visit Among the “Pennsylvania Germans’, by Edith M. Thomas, you can learn how to preserve yellow ground cherries, make shoo-fly pie, brod knodel and other culinary delights. The book is written in narrative form and gives good insight into the everyday life of the Pennsylvania Dutch. In The Great Western Cook Book, or Table Receipts, Adapted to Western Housewifery by Angelina Maria Collins you can learn how to make veal in “western fashion” and apple pie in a pot.
But these cookbooks offer more than just recipes. There is a discussion in Mary At the Farm about women’s suffrage, both from an older woman’s view who saw no need for women to vote, and from a younger woman’s view who thought it was essential. In Estelle Woods Wilcox’s Buckeye Cookery, And Practical Housekeeping: Complied From Original Recipes, you can learn how to soften well water for washing clothes by using ashes. You never know what you’ll find in these “cookbooks”!
A search in your local library may turn up some interesting cookbooks, both regionally and nationally distributed. Sometimes the old cookbooks are reprinted and historical matter is inserted. Often cookbooks are compiled as fundraisers for churches and other groups.
Preserving Your Own Family Recipes
While you’re digging around for recipes from past generations, don’t forget to preserve those you already have. Here is a great resource to help you with cookbook publishing: [Link from the article is broken. Perhaps you’d like to share one?]
With the popularity of microwave dinners and fast food, some of these family recipes, and the great memories that accompany them, might be lost if you don’t record them. Chances are the smell and taste of bite-sized pizzas will not be memorable enough to evoke emotions the way Christmas plum pudding or fresh baked Johnny Cakes can.