Family recipes are an important part of family history. Certain foods remind me of certain people. When I prepare the food that these long-gone family members had made, it is as if these loved ones are joining me at the dinner table.
When I remember my maternal grandmother, I think of fried plantains, Seabreezes, and rum cake. (Yum… rum… My grandmother sure knew how to whip up a mean rum cake, although I swear, you could get drunk off those fumes!)
The first Christmas that I shared with my now-spouse, we spent the holiday break with my grandmother and step-grandfather. In honor of our visit, she and I made her famous rum cake or, should I say, TWO rum cakes. The four of us polished off those cakes in two days! Although it has been 15 years since my grandmother died, I think of her every time I bake a rum cake and reminisce about that visit and the laughs we share.
When I remember my paternal great-grandmother, I think of snickerdoodles, shepherd’s pie, meat pies, and sweet tea… lots and lots of sweet tea. (So much sweet tea, in fact, that she and my Great-Great-Aunt Carella joked at family reunions that sweet tea flowed through our family’s veins! I think they might have been right!)
Growing up, my family visited my two paternal great-grandmothers on Sundays. My grandfather’s mother always treated us to family stories, followed by baked goods or Sunday supper. One of my favorite memories of her was the day we made rolled sugar cookies together. No matter what my great-grandma made, she never consulted a recipe. (I am pretty certain that she could have cooked circles around Betty Crocker.) I watched, fascinated, as she added a handful of this and a pinch of that to create a perfect sugar cookie dough. As she rolled out the dough, my great-grandmother told me about how she would make these cookies as a girl, around about my age. She then handed me an empty jelly jar and told me to cut out as many cookies as I could from that piece of dough. Press and turn, press and turn… one by one, I cut out those cookies. When I was done, she gave me a smile and told me that I had done well. Even though she has been dead 24 years, I still remember that smile.
On my spouse’s side, I will always equate ham and bean soup with his maternal grandmother. His grandmother often had a pot of bean soup simmering on the stove when we visited. (And, of course, we had to sample bowl or two each time. We can’t be rude, now can we?)
What I remember most about that soup was sitting with her at her 1950’s era kitchen table, listening to her as she shared stories of other family members, both alive and gone, and of herself, both old and young. I learned so much about my spouse’s family at that table. Fifteen years have passed since his maternal grandmother died, but I think of her each and every time I make a pot of ham and bean soup.
My husband’s paternal grandmother was renowned for her cooking. Family lore has that her cooking was what initially attracted my spouse’s grandfather. In 1936, a young, Italian-born Marine was assigned to a post in South Charleston, West Virginia. While in Charleston, he met and fell in love with a young lady who cooked sumptuous Italian food. They married within months of meeting.
When I met my spouse’s paternal grandmother more than 50 years later, her husband was no longer alive to enjoy her cooking. However, their large family—sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—gathered at her table to enjoy her sumptuous foods. What I remember most about those meals was how she never seemed to join us; instead, she waited on us, making sure plates and stomachs were full. And she rarely allowed help with cleanup, even though some of us offered. She did, however, welcome a helping hand and a willingness to learn when it came to preparing the food.
Several times, I joined her in the kitchen, learning to prepare smelts, gnocchi, and ravioli. (Okay, so they were really tortellini, but who was I to argue with her?) While we cooked, she told me all about her very large Appalachian family, how her mother who was given both a boy’s and girl’s name (Willie Alice), and her many, many brothers and sisters. We laughed about funny times in her childhood and wiped away tears when she talked about her sister who died from a car fire and her brother who was killed in a tank during World War II. (She claimed the tears were from the onions.) Although 12 years have passed since she passed away, I think of her still when I make homemade gnocchi.
So you see, family recipes are an important part of our family history. Each of us, especially family historians, should take the time to document this aspect of our loved ones’ lives. Considering attaching family recipes to family tree records. Like census records, these recipes (especially those written in that person’s own hand) tells part of that person’s life story.
Culture and personal preferences are captured when we remember to document the food of our lives. Every time a family recipe is prepared and shared, a part of our ancestors live on.
Published originally on 8 April 2017, Family Food History