When I decided to listen to those ancestors who are always looking over my shoulder as I cook, many of my friends said they knew exactly what I meant. And like the lovable schizophrenic Dr. Daniel Pierce in the TV show Perception, we do not want to be cured of our illusions. The family ties that lead from the cookstove to the ceramic cooktop, from icebox to double-door freezer-refrigerator, from receipts to recipes forge strong ties between generations.
Although I have piles of old family photos, and boxes of ephemera, including recorded memories to help me in recreating family food history, I really don’t have a profusion of precious hand-written recipes. So, how to recreate the life of family in the kitchen from past generations?
I don’t know about you, but I still turn to books. Yes, I utilize search engines for elusive facts, but my kitchen has always overflowed with cookbooks and since I’ve been accumulating them for 50 years, they tell a bit about the change in attitude and practice regarding food between the 20th and 21st century.
If my own books do that for a small piece of food history, think what other books can do over a broader span of time! So it was a real joy to discover a book dedicated to helping those of us who see family through the lens of food.
From the Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes by Gena Philibert-Ortega is just the book to get you started on a family and food quest. I came away bursting with ideas of subjects that I can explore–regional foods, kitchen gadgets, housecleaning hints, the evolution of ethic foods when immigrants come to America.
Philibert-Ortega skims the surface of the many subjects she covers but From the Family Kitchen is packed with suggested resources for more detailed exploration. She tells us how the cookbook evolved in America, from the very first one in 1796. The title, quite literally, says it all. American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables and the Best Modes of Making Puffs–Pastries, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, From the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted to This Country, and All Grades of Life by Amelia Simmons.
And if you have ever tried to recreate an old recipe and been stumped by unfamiliar terms or odd directions, Philibert-Ortega comes to the rescue with a glossary and tables laying out historic food terminology.
From the Family Kitchen even contains some recipes, although I doubt I’m going to try mock turtle soup which starts with instructions to take the head of a calf, separate the jaw and remove the brains…. And menus from bygone days give us an idea of how our ancestors dined.
After laying out all this helpful information, the book’s last section turns into a do-it-yourself family food history journal. Fill in the blank pages with inherited recipes and their stories.
Philibert Ortega maintains two blogs–one about genealogy in general, the other about food history through her collection of community cookbooks, a great lens on the cooking of the past. I’ll be adding several community cookbooks to the Food Books That Stir Family Memories Page, but meanwhile encourage you to take a look at the list of books I’ve entered so far. You may find something that helps in your own search for your family’s food history.