A Taste of History

By Lucy Amaral Premium

My great-grandmother had a wood stove that sat next to the electric one in her tiny kitchen. A metal basin was fastened to the side of the wood stove, to heat water for washing the dishes. On another side of the kitchen, a small table was used for breakfast, lunch and conversations.

For holidays, my great-grandmother would make five-course meals,to be eaten at the formal dining table: homemade antipasto, then meat, then homemade pasta, then salad, ending with a platter of fruit and soft cheeses. Each course required a fresh plate. At the start of the festivities, she would serve guests (children included) a small glass of sherry, then toast “Salute!” Nona, as her grandchildren called her, would then pass a tray of Turta, an appetizer both peppery and sweet. It was always complemented by a glass of my great grandfather’s homemade red wine.

I never met my great-grandmother. I never felt the glow of her wood stove or sat at that table in her kitchen. I never tasted her Turta. She died years before I was born.

It wasn’t until my grandmother, an incredible cook herself, passed away that I realized the recipes and the lives of these two women might fade into history if I didn’t do something. The closest I could get to knowing my great-grandmother was through the recipes that she passed down and the stories her grandchildren — my mother, aunts and their cousins — told about her. I had to document those memories to make her come alive for me.

The result was a year-long journey, ending with my own “Family Feasts” compilation of the meals, memories and life stories of four women, five families and three generations.

Think about your own family food history. Are some of your favorite dishes from family recipes handed down through the generations? What family food conjures up vivid memories of your relatives and the world in which they lived? What meals that you now serve come from their lives and experiences? What experiences and recipes do you want to pass on to the next generation?

These memories and meals are a link to your family’s past, present and future. “Family history-is passed down through meals and food-related family traditions,” says social historian Katherine Scott Sturdevant, author of Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History (Betterway Books). “Foodways, as historians and folklorists call them, are one of the strongest ways that social history and culture are transmitted from one generation or group to the next.” By recording those “foodways,” you can document a part of your family’s history that has probably never been written down.

You might start as simply as gathering recipes and memories at your next family reunion. Perhaps you want to create a gift for your children and grandchildren. Maybe one line of your family tree is fairly complete, but you want to add a new twist to help bring it to life. Whatever the reason for creating your own cooking collection, the end result will be something unique. No other family’s stories, recipes and celebrations are quite like yours. What better reason to get it all down?

Recipe for success

Getting started on your family’s food heritage isn’t hard. You have to be part detective, part food lover and part diplomat. The process involves five simple steps:

1. Make a plan.

2. Interview relatives.

3. Get recipes and memories.

4. Document life stories.

5. Design your heritage collection.

Unless you already have all the recipes and know everything about the people you want to, include, this will take time. Time to interview people. Tune to get the recipes. Time to test the recipes and time to write the life stories of the people who cooked these meals. But that’s OK. The stories have waited this long — they can wait a little longer. The important thing is to get cooking on your family food heritage.

A good place to begin is at the end: choose which form you want the finished product to take. As a writer, it was natural for me to make my finished “family feasts” product look like a small book. I kept that goal in mind as I gathered the information. But that may not be the best format for your family food heritage. Consider the options:

• A life-story book

• A more traditionally styled cookbook

• A memory scrapbook

• A video

• A Web site

• Or whatever else you imagine…

The next step is creating a system for collecting and organizing your materials. Whether you keep scraps of paper in a large box or scan the information into a computer, make sure the information you gather is all in one place.

You also need to decide how you will actually gather recipes and related family lore. If you’re contacting a lot of people, mail is a good method; you can e-mail the techno-sawy people on your list. Just make sure you give them a deadline for getting back to you.

The phone can be a convenient way to work with your relatives, particularly if they’re scattered across the country. Schedule a time to talk, then be prepared with your list of questions.

Of course, in-person interviews are a great way to relive memories, see old photographs and get recipes and stories. (For tips on interviewing your relatives, see the April 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.) Before the interview, decide whether you’ll videotape or audiotape the conversation (you’ll still take notes, of course). And stock up on supplies that suit your approach, such as:

• Pedigree charts and family group sheets (which you can download for free at <>)

• Large envelopes for storing photos and recipe cards

• A lined notebook

• Recipe cards

• Tape recorder and blank tapes

• Phone headset to leave your hands free for phone interviews

Cooking up a conversation

Your search for relatives and recipes doesn’t have to be daunting. Start with yourself and work backwards. Think about the family recipes most familiar to you: What memories do those recipes conjure up? Who are they about? If you list your parents, grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents, chances are that certain recipes will follow.

Once you list your basic family tree, decide which relatives to include. For relatives who have died, list living relatives who knew them. You’ll have some favorite recipes in mind, but have extra blank recipe cards ready to document dishes’ that may not have been handed down to you.

Keep individual pages or folders for each relative you plan to include. File pertinent information — birth, death, address, children, grandchildren — along with signature meals, events and recipes in one place.

As you start contacting your relatives, you’ll discover that people love to talk, most people love to talk about their past, and everybody loves to talk about food. Askopen-ended questions: What were family parties like when you were a child? What did your grandmother’s kitchen look like?

Robin Hinch, a biographer and team leader of the Orange County Register‘s obituary section, recommends having a few questions ready before you call, beginning with basic biographical information and then expanding from there. “Start with, ‘Where were you born?’ Then, if it’s an older person, perhaps ask, ‘Were they-born in a hospital, or on the kitchen table of their house?’ What if the table you’ve been eating Thanksgiving dinner on all these years was the same table where your great-grand mother was born?”

Once you have your relatives talking, what do you listen for? The facts, of course, but also the “snapshots” of life: moments that reveal what a person was like and what-kind of life they lived. For example, one of my mother’s favorite memories of my great-grandfather was of them sitting on his old-porch during the summer, where he sliced fat, juicy peaches into two cylindrical glasses. He’d pour his homemade red wine over the peaches, and then they’d sit quietly together on those sultry afternoons and eat.

One way to tell if you’re getting a good picture of a person or era is by checking against all five senses: What sounds were present? Music? Machinery? What did the chairs, linens, furniture and walls look like? What textures do they recall? Were there hand-knit sweaters, burlap bags of grain, soft velvet curtains? What smells do your relatives remember?

A pinch of history

Whether your relatives write down their oral recipes and send them off, you take the information over the phone, or you visit the person and transfer the information to paper as they make the dish … Get the recipe!

My grandmother made the most wonderful cookies called “Boozies.” She never used official measurements; it was “a handful of this, a pinch of that.” To preserve this recipe, my cousin sat with her one afternoon and stopped her after each step, measured the ingredients, then wrote it down. Because of her diligence, my family has this recipe to pass down to our children.

The physical format of a recipe is simple enough: List the ingredients and then the steps to prepare the dish. For novice chefs, though, assembling a recipe might seem daunting. Joan Collins, chief instructor for the consumer education department of the California School of Culinary Arts, advises beginners to make the recipe as clear as possible from the start. “Always list the ingredients as they go in, in the same order as you are going to use them,” she says. “This helps organize your whole recipe.” She also recommends numbering the preparation steps for easy reference.

Make separate recipe cards for each dish and be as specific as you can when recording the steps. Your relative may have cooked by “scoopful,” but it’s now up to you to get down the exact measurements, instructions and proper cooking utensils. Ask for step-by-step instructions, no matter how simple it seems, and write it all down. If your relative says to saute onions, ask how to saute the onions: With olive oil? Butter? Lard? In a fry pan? Dutch oven?

Collins also advocates picking a measurement scheme and sticking with it. “The biggest mistake is that recipes don’t have standardized measurements. If the recipe goes from tablespoons to ounces to half cups to weight measurements, it’s not consistent.”

Don’t worry about being too detailed with cooking instructions. Omitting a step you deemed obvious might harm more than help. Carefully check the written recipes that have been given to you, and call back to clarify any questions you have. Make sure the ingredients match each step of the cooking process. And make sure the ingredients are identifiable — Helmann’s brand on the East Coast is known as Best Foods west of the Rockies.

Some other tips to keep in mind as you record your family recipes:

• Check spelling and dialect. Many families hand down recipes verbally or quickly jot them down on note paper. So spelling and pronunciation of dishes can mutate. Pasta e fagioli becomes Pasta Fazool. Braciole (stuffed meat rolls) becomes Brazol. Boozics and Bagna Cauda (ban-ya cow-da) are examples from my family: We weren’t completely sure how to spell them, even though we all cooked these dishes many times. I finally found the spelling of Bagna Cauda in an old Italian recipe book. “Boozies,” a pastry-cookie, is still pretty much a guess.

• Watch for family no-no’s. In my family, oregano and fennel were banned from the kitchen — not for anything evil the herbs did, just because “it wasn’t done.” Several among the newer generation have added both spices to certain dishes — covertly, of course.

• Do the pots and pans. Like recipes, are there certain pans or cooking utensils that are passed down from generation to generation. You could even include photographs of these treasured tools.

• Don’t forget your own favorite recipes. Your own descendants will want to know what dishes you’re known for. Your great oatmeal raisin cookie can sit happily alongside Uncle Egbert’s elegant souffle.

Once you’ve recorded the recipes, you get to do the fun part: tasting and testing recipes that may not have been made in generations. Do this not only to celebrate the process, but also to make sure the recipe works. A meal beautifully prepared on your great-grandmother’s wood stove might disintegrate into ash on today’s appliances. So, if she used a “warm” oven, you may need to experiment (many times over) until, you can say that her “warm” is your 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition to recipes’, make sure to borrow or copy photographs, letters, certificates and the like that will illustrate your cookbook, Web site or whatever.

Serving it up

Whether your own “family feasts” collection is five or 55 pages long, tape recorded, videotaped or uploaded, you’ll need a structure to organize your recipes and recollections. As you gather the material, you’ll start to see a pattern. Are all of your meals centered around holidays or certain events? Then break down sections that way. Did all the recipes come from one, two or three specific cooks? Give each of them their own section. Breakfast, lunch, dinner? Decades? So many recipes that a traditional cookbook format (appetizers, meat, poultry, dessert, etc.) works best? Decide what suits you and your family.

In my “family feasts” book, I introduced relatives individually, starting with my great-grandmother. This served two purposes: It introduced her and it gave the readers a context for everyone else in the book. It’s called a “through-line” — everything and everyone goes back to my great-grandmother. If you want to try this, but are timid about writing a “story,” there are books that will help guide you through the process

If a life story seems too daunting, try a standard family tree structure. Then, when listing the recipes and the stories that go with them, you can announce each person by name, and jot down a few facts and add photographs to round out their story. (You can even find genealogy software that will help you with both pedigrees and recipes: Generations Grand Suite comes with a recipe database, MasterCook.)

Draw on your strengths in other hobbies to bring it all together in an attractive final format. If you’re a scrapbooking whiz, here’s where your crafting creativity can shine. If what you really want to do is direct, today’s video-cameras and computers make it possible to create a video worthy of the Food Network. (For tips on high-tech video, see the April 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine.)

But whether you tape photographs next to a typed recipe and have them duplicated at a local copy center or have a Web site with streaming video, you’re accomplishing the same important goal: Remembering your past, honoring your heritage and creating a precious gift for your future.

I know that my own “family feasts” will never be done. Recipes, life stories and memories will continue to be added, keeping my family’s legacy alive long after I have left the kitchen. I also have the pleasure of knowing that in the future, when I serve my grandchildren a small glass of sherry and pass around a plate of Turta, they’ll know how to make the dish and, just as important, where the tradition and the recipes came from. Salute!
From the December 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine