From Their Kitchen to Yours

By Gena Philibert-Ortega Premium

Incorporating food traditions into your family history brings your research to life, and inspires current generations to learn more about their heritage. It’s also a wonderful way to learn about the everyday lives of your ancestors—especially your foremothers—in a time when securing and preparing food took more time and energy than it does today.

But discovering, collecting, preserving and understanding your ancestors’ recipes and food heritage can be challenging, particularly if you’re not lucky enough to have an archive of family recipes and heirlooms. These strategies from my new book From the Family Kitchen (Family Tree Books) will help you track down family recipes and re-create lost or unrecorded food traditions.

Strategy 1: Start at home.

As with any genealogical research, it’s vital to start with what you know and search for home sources. Typically, family historians look for family Bibles, photographs, correspondence, passports, vital certificates, newspaper clippings and yearbooks. But this list is too limited for exploring your family’s food traditions.

You want cookbooks and recipes handed down through the family, as well as heirlooms involved in the preparation and presentation of food. Kitchen tools, furniture, appliances, tablecloths and linens, aprons, silverware, pottery and china all help tell the story of your family. Besides searching your own home, ask other members of the family for any food-heritage material they may own.

Don’t forget about photographs of family kitchens, holidays, celebrations and family members preparing food. These can provide valuable clues about food, meal preparation and family cooks. And they’ll bring back memories of Grandma’s baking aromas, the food and the traditions.

Strategy 2: Talk it up.

As you gather home sources, ask relatives to share their food memories. Contact them through email or social networking sites such as Facebook. Both are convenient for sending questions to one person or a group. The latter approach allows family members to read each others’ responses, which may help trigger more memories. This is a great way to solicit recollections from the younger generations in your family.

While you may have specific food memories about your grandmother, your cousin’s memories offer a different perspective and could add to what you already know. Every summer, my family visited my maternal grandmother and stayed with her for a few weeks. One of the foods we always enjoyed there was watermelon. A cousin later told me that when he was small, my grandmother warned him that if he swallowed any watermelon seeds, the fruit would grow in his stomach. (This was probably an effort on her part to make him behave.) He feared eating watermelon because of the potential fruit that would overtake his stomach. Now something as ordinary as eating watermelon reminds me of my cousin who grew up believing a watermelon might grow inside his belly.

To collect the memories of older generations, who may be less-frequent technology users, you’ll probably need to set up oral interviews. These interviews can be short discussions conducted either in person or over the phone. Be respectful of the person’s time and limit the length of your interview. It’s better to conduct a few separate, short sessions than to wear the person out with endless questions. Learn more about oral history interviewing here.

Whether you conduct your interview over the internet, over the phone, or in person, realize that when you initially ask questions, people tend to say that they don’t remember, that they have no memories of a specific subject, or that their stories aren’t important. Assure your relative that anything he or she can share is valuable and allow time to reflect on each question. You may even consider providing the questions in advance so there’s time to ponder each one. Most importantly, really listen to what the person is saying. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. Click here for a list of food-history related questions to ask during an interview.

Strategy 3: Go online.

After you’ve exhausted your home sources and relatives, turn your search to outside sources. Look for information on the historical background of family recipes, search for cookbooks relevant to the time and places your ancestors lived, study up on food-related cultural traditions and more. Looking for answers through an internet search engine such as Bing, Google and Yahoo! may be a good way to begin.

Remember that conducting numerous searches with a variety of related words can yield more pertinent results. To receive more precise results, place your search term or phrase in quotation marks. This tells the search engine to search on an exact phrase. For example, instead of searching on mincemeat pie and getting more than 2 million matches on websites that have the word mincemeat and the word pie anywhere on the page, you would search “mincemeat pie” and get a little over 250,000 hits. Just remember that exact phrase searching does have drawbacks. When you search an exact phrase, the search engine will only look for that phrase. So a search for “mince pie” won’t find “mincemeat pie.”
Google searches return matches from Google Books, which has millions of digitized books and periodicals. That includes all types of cookbooks from the latest, most popular books by celebrity chefs to 1890s church cookbooks. Many public-domain historical cookbooks from the late 19th and early 20th century are available to search in their entirety on Google Books.

You can search Google Books as you would any search engine. Use the Advanced search link to narrow your search and search for books based on publisher, title, language, author, subject, and publication date.

The “Get this book in print” link in a search result takes you to a results page that links to booksellers offering that title for sale. Follow the link for Find in a Library to see a list of libraries holding the book on WorldCat. WorldCat is an online library catalog that searches more than 10,000 libraries and 1.5 billion items including books, periodicals, theses and dissertations, and other resources. If no libraries near you have the item you want, ask your librarian about borrowing it through interlibrary loan.

Strategy 4:Consult community cookbooks. 

Community cookbooks, also known as charity cookbooks or fundraising cookbooks, gained popularity as a means for women to support causes they valued. Although not typically used as a genealogical source, these cookbooks often name women who contributed recipes, serving as a resource to place a woman in a particular locality at a specific time.
Community cookbooks vary on what information can be found inside. Early versions might give you merely a “Mrs. Earl Bingham,” with full names included only for unmarried women. Cookbooks might also include information ranging from photographs of recipe contributors to explanations of each dish’s significance to a local family.

Depending on the group organizing the cookbook, you can find occupations, personal histories and even clues to ethnic backgrounds. Advertisements from local businesses helped offset printing costs and provide nice details about products available to your ancestor. Additionally, some cookbooks include information about the group benefiting from the book’s publication. For example, church group cookbooks may contain church histories, names of ministers and information on church auxiliaries and missions.

Adding to the importance of community cookbooks—and to your family’s food history—are the recipes for food that real people ate. If you’ve ever donated a recipe to a community cookbook, it was most likely a family favorite or one you thought your friends would enjoy. The same was true for your ancestors. These are recipes women in the community were proud of and used themselves, recipes they wanted to share with others, recipes that serve as reminders of their lives. Many of these cookbooks have an underlying theme of feeding families on a budget or with what was available to the region. Depending on the place and era, hunting or raising small animals may have been the preferred way to obtain protein. The gathering of rabbits, squirrels, and pigeons, for instance, was an easy and inexpensive way to feed a family.

To find community cookbooks that document the locality you’re researching—maybe even including a grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s contribution—you’ll follow some of the same steps for uncovering family recipes. Begin by asking family members to search their book collections for community cookbooks from the town, church or other organization your family was a part of.

Next, broaden your search. Check with churches or clubs your ancestor belonged to; cookbooks might be with current members or in the archives. Search online book collections such as Google Books and Cornell University’s Home Economics Archive. Consult bibliographies such as America’s Charitable Cooks by Margaret Cook and Canadian Culinary Landmarks by Elizabeth Driver. Search libraries and auction websites. Also consider used bookstores, library book sales and thrift stores.

Now that you have some recipes your foremothers prepared, you can enjoy them with your family or just use them to enhance your understanding of your family history. If you eat the foods, beware that what was once considered a standard ingredient may now be known to be dangerous. Before you decide to try out that daffodil salad or a home remedy Great-aunt Edna swore by, thoroughly research any unfamiliar ingredients. With that in mind, your search for your family’s food history will turn up delicious results.

Cookbook Collections

Tip: Don’t overlook the advertisements in community cookbooks. These can serve as a sort of city directory, allowing you to reconstruct your ancestor’s community.
Tip: Use group messages on social media to collect food-related memories from family members. Reading each others’ responses may help trigger relatives’ memories. 

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