Tag Archives: collections

Cooking Up Some Family History!

This article first appeared in Discovering Family History Magazine, July/August 2008. No copying without the author’s permission is permitted.

Campton, KY church dinnerLinking Food to Memories

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

family cookbook

My mom’s self-produced family cookbook

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.

We’re Connected by Stories

Defining Our Attachment

“…it’s our stories that tell us who we are. Our parents’ and grandparents’ stories are unique to each of us, to which we have an irrefutable attachment.”

This quote came from this blog post. It speaks the truth, I believe.  This is the sum of why I started researching my roots. We are all searching, I believe, for a connection to each other and to God. Stories connect us. Even hearing the stories of someone not blood-related to you brings you closer to that person and that person’s struggles and triumphs.

How Stories are Collected

The post I linked to above is about a family business in Manhattan. There is another story about a family Clarke's photo by Cindy Thomsonbusiness that I have not stopped thinking about since I heard it. This one takes place on the other side of the pond, in the west of Ireland in a town called Ballina. The town, on the River Moy, is known for salmon. Clarke’s Salmon Smokery in downtown Ballina, which Jackie Clarke opened in 1945, is now run by his sons. The story about Jackie Clarke met my attention because I’ve visited Ballina and even eaten smoked salmon in one of the pubs there. (Truth be told my husband and I ate smoked salmon almost everywhere we went in Ireland and even had it in the airport before we flew home because you’re not allowed to take it with you!)

A Collector of History

Jackie Clarke, apparently, was a collector of items of historical significance. When he died in 2000 he left a floor of his house stuffed with items:

It is the most important private collection of Irish history material in public hands, comprising over 100,000 items spanning 400 years. It includes artefacts associated with Theobald Wolfe Tone; letters from Michael Collins, Douglas Hyde, Michael Davitt and O’Donovan Rossa. It also contains rare books, proclamations, posters, political cartoons, pamphlets, handbills, works by Sir John Lavery, maps, hunger strike material and personal items from Leaders of the 1916 Rising.–www.clarkecollection.ie

From the Jackie Clarke Collection

from http://www.clarkecollection.ie/Collection/

His wife donated the collection in 2005, and much of it is on display in a former bank building in town. This museum opened after my visit so I didn’t get to see it, but it started me thinking about the importance one man collecting history can have. How much of what he kept might have been lost had he not done it? I imagine a good bit. Lots of people keep mementoes, pictures, and items related to their own personal histories. But Jackie Clarke must have felt connected to his community and his country when he stowed away all the stuff he did. I can’t imagine why he didn’t share it in his lifetime. Apparently even his family didn’t know the extent of his collection. Perhaps he thought he was the only interested, but of course that wasn’t true.

My mother has stashed away items, particularly newspaper articles, when she felt they would be of historical significance in the future. She has nothing like the Clarke Collection, but she probably shares Jackie Clarke’s convictions. So much is digital now that there is little need to keep everything, but organizing it is still important so future generations can feel connected to their past. What do you think? Are you a collector?

The past connects us in important ways but only if we are able to hear the stories.