Category Archives: recipes

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, 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, 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.

Early 20th Century Recipes From Annie’s Stories

One of the things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is the food. I don’t always want to eat it, but I’m curious. What did people enjoy back then? Here are the answers from my novel, Annie’s Stories.

Stephen Adams frequents his friend’s diner where his wife makes one of Stephen’s favorite dishes. It’s so popular, it is often sold out. I believe it must have been early 20th century comfort food.

Creamed Cabbage

2 cups cabbage, minced, boiled until tender and drained
• 1 cup hot milk
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1 teaspoon flour
• ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper
• 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
• Generous dash of sweet paprika
Return the cooked cabbage to the pan. Cream together butter and flour. Add the milk, butter-flour mixture, salt and pepper, parsley and paprika to the cabbage and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring to keep from burning. Serve over toast.
Annie did her share of cooking at Hawkins House. Her favorite dish was one Mrs. Hawkins taught her, a British speciality. It was time consuming, but in Annie’s opinion, well worth the trouble.

Peas Porridge, sometimes called Pease Pudding

This recipe comes from an 1898 cookbook titled: Mrs. Roundell’s Practical Cookery Book: With Many Family Recipes Hitherto Unpublished 

I imagine this was comfort food as well, at least it was for Annie, and a nice contrast to all those sweets she is so fond of.

Speaking of sweets, in one scene Annie and her cousin Aileen are making a Brown Betty. They would have learned this from living in America. The dish first appears in the middle of the 19th century. Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but…surely this is comfort food as well. I wonder what my mood must have been while writing this novel. 😉

It’s a fairly simple recipe. I read that it was one of the Reagans’ favorites while they were in the White House.

Apple Brown Betty

2 c. finely chopped apples
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. bread crumbs
1/2 c. chopped nuts
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tbsp. butter
Place a layer of apples in a greased baking dish. Mix dry ingredients together. Sprinkle apples with the mixture. Alternate layers until all is used, ending with the crumbs on top. Dot with butter. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover to brown. Serve warm or cold with cream.

Annie has a sweet tooth, something Stephen discovers and takes advantage of. His neighbor bakes for several shops and she invites him to come by and taste something she is preparing called rugelach. It’s a Jewish pastry/cookie to die for traditionally made for Hanukkah.

I imagine Mrs. Jacobs’s looked similar to these from Zabar’s in Manhattan. You can even order these online and have them shipped to your house!

Here is a recipe I found at
For pastry:
3 cups unbleached flour
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 pound cream cheese
1/2 pound softened butter or margarine
1 tablespoon vanilla
For the filling:
12 heaping tablespoons canned whole cranberry sauce
2 cups sugar
2 cups chopped walnuts
2 cups raisins
2 tablespoons cinnamon
For topping:
1 tablespoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons sugar, mixed
Blend all pastry ingredients and divide dough into 6 equal pieces. Shape into balls, cover, and refrigerate until chilled.
Sprinkle a little flour on a flat surface. Take each ball and roll out into a 12-inch circle, dusting with flour as needed to keep dough from sticking. Place 2 heaping tablespoons of cranberry sauce on each pastry round, covering a 6-inch circle at the center of it.
Combine all other filling ingredients and spoon one cup of it on each round, spreading evenly to an inch of the edge.
Using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut into 16 triangles, slicing the dough like a pie.
Starting at the outer edge, roll each triangle toward the center and place on a greased cookie sheet with the small end of the triangle on the bottom.
When all the triangles are rolled, dust the tops with the cinnamon-sugar mixture and bake in a 325°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until tops are golden-brown.

Are you hungry yet? If you have a recipe you’d like to share, let me know in the comments.