1. Donner Party Cookbook by Terry Del Bene (Horse Creek Publications, $15.95). OK, it’s not what you think: This isn’t a guide to roasting the dearly departed. It’s actually an entertaining and informative book about the ill-fated Donner Party, who got caught in a mid-1840s blizzard in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to mortuary cannibalism to stay alive. The book includes recipes that 19th-century westward travelers prepared on the trail. Your mouth will water at such tempting culinary delights as brain stew, antelope pudding, buffalo tongue and gruel. If your kin migrated west, they likely prepared and ate some of these recipes—even if they didn’t travel with the Donner Party.
2. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano (Palgrave, $29.95). Theophano has read between the lines of hundreds of cookbooks dating from the 17th century, and uncovered fascinating tidbits about women’s lives. In our ancestors’ day, cookbooks weren’t used just for meal preparation; they also served as reading primers and outlets for creativity. Genealogists especially will enjoy the chapter “Lineage and Legacies,” which discusses the passing down of recipes. By hunting for Great-grandma’s cookbook, you might uncover more about your family history than you thought you would.
3. From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals by Barbara Haber (Penguin Books, $15). Unlike most culinary historians, who focus on the types of food people ate, Haber takes a different approach by looking at significant periods in American history and the cooks and meals they made. Haber covers the influences of Civil War nurses, 1800s diet reformers, westward migrants, Irish immigrants, African-Americans, World War II prisoners of war and many others. Recipes are scattered throughout, but the heart of this book is the narrative about food in relation to key events.
4. The Lewis & Clark Cookbook by Leslie Mansfield (Celestial Arts, $17.95). These recipes require some of the same ingredients found in the Donner cookbook, but with a gourmet touch: Hominy with tomatoes au gratin and bear with red wine, mushroom and juniper sauce sound a bit more appetizing than brain stew. Alongside the recipes, you’ll find comments from Lewis and Clark’s journals about the foods they ate. This book shows the variety and inventiveness of meal preparation for our westward ancestors.
5. A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances by Laura Schenone (W.W. Norton & Co., $35). More than a recipe book, this is a social history of food—and not just food prepared by white, middle-class women. Here, you’ll find how American Indian, immigrant and slave women gathered, prepared and served their families’ fare. To help you visualize your foremothers’ domestic life, Schenone also provides more than 100 historical images of advertisements, kitchens and women in the midst of cooking.