My grandmother was from the “pinch of this and dash of that” school of cooking: She had no idea how much of any ingredient she actually used. My mother finally got Grandma (her mother-in-law) to write down the clam chowder recipe our family loved—but Mom’s resulting concoction was barely edible. In desperation, she watched my Grandma cook and interrupted to carefully measure each ingredient before it went into the mix. The end result: a perfect pot of chowder.
We associate heirloom recipes with all kinds of occasions, but none more than the holiday season. Every Christmas Eve for generations, my mother’s French Canadian family has served tourtiere, a meat pie, although no one remembers how the tradition began. At my grandmother’s house, parsnips and baby onions—two of her children’s favorites—always showed up at Thanksgiving dinner. But any gathering presents an opportunity to talk about favorite family fare. So ask your kin these questions between mouthfuls:
- Who made this? Recipes get passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition, on recipe cards, in cookbooks and via show-and-tell (the way my mother finally perfected Grandma’s chowder). When you notice dishes that reappear on the dinner table, find out who the chef was, compliment him and ask how he got the recipe. It may be an updated version of an ancestral dish.
- Who made it first?
- Why is the dish a family favorite? This question reveals the memories that go along with the food. You’re apt to hear stories about who liked it, when it was served and how the recipe has changed. Oral tradition in the Avery family of Groton, Conn., tells of their 17th-century ancestors’ introduction to tea. One of the Mrs. Averys (it’s unknown which one) boiled tea leaves and served them as a vegetable with pork. Predictably, the lore also recounts how no one ate the new dish.
- What other family recipes exist? Ask around, and you might learn that a cousin has Aunt Millie’s cookbook or Grandma’s recipe box. What a treasure! Like old family Bibles, cookbooks often include notes scribbled in the margins (“Billy’s favorite,” “use less vinegar”), and mementos such as flowers or menu cards pressed between the pages. Aunt Millie may have noted when she made a recipe and changed the measurements based on how many she was feeding.
As you’re doing genealogy, keep an eye out for meal mentions in letters, diaries and papers. Even if you don’t find recorded recipes, you may learn names or descriptions of favorite foods. Then you can research how to make them using other resources.
Ask if anyone can remember the origins of the food. You might be surprised that recipes hopscotched across the family tree: The lines of descent aren’t necessarily mother-to-daughter. I don’t make all the foods my mom loved to cook—to be honest, I just don’t like mincemeat pie—but my cousin selected several for her dinner table.
You might add new information to your family history if relatives can identify the originator of a dish. Chances are that person was a woman. Locating your female ancestors can be challenging since they changed surnames and tended to “hide” behind their husbands in official records. But cookery was one way for those ancestral women to express their ingenuity and resourcefulness, so try to get to know them through the recipes they prepared. If you can’t trace the recipe’s originator, you may be able to use ingredients or cooking methods to help identify her.