Can you really tell a family story without mentioning the food that framed your family gatherings on holidays? Family rituals often have embedded food rituals.
My grandmother saved seeds; my grand-daughters are served non-GMO food whenever possible. This one sentence, personal vignette is a story of five generations of women. It involves changes in farming, from truck gardens to agribusiness. It is a reflection of how women procure food for their families. Hints, implications, context, and reference are implicit nuance, almost incidental, in all we document and share. Cultivate that richness. Layer meaning.
So much of women’s history, the real nitty gritty bits of everyday lives, involves food.
When writing about your family history, writing your memoir, or planning for a weekend with family, consider including food conversations and activities. They are so integral to life that we forget how evocative they are.
The politics of food is women’s business, and always has been either overtly or covertly. The price of staples, the quality of produce outlets whether they are farmers markets or big box stores, locations bakeries used for weekly purchases or seasonal celebrations, and where to find the best cut of meat for a good price and where to purchase a Christmas ham — women in charge of a household or family have very strong views on these subjects. There are always exceptions, and customs change from generation to generation, but cultural lifeways are taken personally given great importance.
Water and food are life. And family water and food concerns largely fall to women the world over. Food blogs are everywhere, and some of the best blog templates are designed with food in mind. Recipes are wonderful repositories of family culture. With a tiny bit of effort nuance can be folded in as easily as egg whites.
For example, my mother used half of an empty egg shell as the basic measure for ingredients when adding liquid to the dry ingredients when making egg noodles. No three tablespoons of milk or 1/4 cup of milk in these family recipes can be directly used with any reliability. Mom knew that her mother used half an egg shell of milk when a 1/4 cup was called for. That is family history. It also implies that the shells from the eggs from her hens were sturdy enough to hold up to being used as a measuring cup. It also meant that different size eggs would adjust liquid automatically. Flour was already adjusted through kneading and the addition of flour until the proper elasticity was reached.
Share the little things you remember. It might not really be so little after all.
FAMILY FOOD & REGIONAL FlAVORS
Pie has been around for ages, literally, for millennia. Pie as we know it, with super sweetness, has only been around since sugar was widely available. But pie still, and has always, used up bits of food and abundant supplies whether it be mince meat, autumn squash such as pumpkin, or recently harvested pecans. Your grandmother’s recipes may reflect the area she or her family were from.
Fruit pies were a staple in the Amish influenced region I grew up in. So were noodles, and lots of food that could be stored over the winters and had needed vitamins. Slaws, sauerkraut, and pickles were common for cold climate cultures to maintain vegetables, as fermented or brined items, in their diets throughout the year.
Tamales, ligonberries, and berberre spice are all food or ingredients that trace to specific regions of the world. Filled corn meal dishes served on leaves is meso-American. Living in Tucson, I can’t imagine life without tamales. Celebratory drinks of ligonberry liquor with my academic advisor will always be a delightful blending of her research within the arctic circle with our friendship. It took me forever to figure out the spice necessary to create dishes from the Ethiopian restaurant owned by the family of one of my daughter’s schoolmates. My daughter grew up on and loved spinach cheese pie and cauliflower cheese pie because of my granola or veggie sort of lifestyle in my 20s and 30s. Our personal food choices blend into a personal history that extends beyond us.
PICKLING & FERMINATION: CALLING A SPADE AN IMPLEMENT
The recent reentry of fermentation in our diets through food and drink such as kambucha, kvess, lassi and kefir shows that such food adds something that people crave. Food then and now is a great way to enter into a discussion with your kids and grandkids about family food culture. To enter into an informed discussion, reading about the differences between pickling and fermentation is a good idea. Lumping them together is sort of like saying a hammer and a saw are the same thing because both are implements.
I have a slaw-grater, a wooden slaw mallet, and crockery of all sorts from generations back in my family. My germanic and Swiss ancestry is very evident in the kitchen tools I inherited. Some people have family crests, my family has kitchen tools. The food stories are personal and touch me as much as any story of heraldry. Work with what you have. We all have memories of food.
NEW TECH FOR OLD FOOD
The addition of recent technology such as electric crock pots beg for stories about the changing work patterns of women. If you are out working out of the home all day, you are not home to stir the pot. The ever increasing size of refrigerators points to the disappearance of root cellars and preserved foods. Coffee tech reflects the increasing globalization of supply chains and consumer tastes. A look around your kitchen and pantry may be revealing.
Food is one of the richest sources to mine for stories to share. Women’s lives have centered around food tech and food stuffs long into the distant past. It is a shame to allow stories or sustenance fade away.
For a long time I never gave much thought to the food of my mother and her mother (my family history doesn’t go back much further). Recently, I got an e-book out of the New York City public library called “The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List” by Alana Newhouse, (She’s more an editor; it’s a compilation of essays on food by various contributors, including Dr. Ruth Westheimer and cookbook author Joan Nathan). NPR’s The Salt called it ““[A] love letter—to food, family, faith and identity, and the deliciously tangled way they come together.” When I read that book, the memories started to flow, everything from the Breakstone’s Whipped Butter on my grandmother’s table (a taste like no other) to my mother’s pot roast, to the schav , lox, bagels, stuffed cabbage and eggcreams I loved as a little girl. The way my mother shopped for food was so different from how I do it, with her trips to the butcher, the dairy store, and the store that sold pickles out of a barrel. No, I couldn’t write a family history without including all of that because it is interwoven between my genes. And if I don’t write it, will it all be lost? Yes, water and food are life.
I am so glad you are enjoying these posts! We must tell our mothers’ stories, but you already know that!
On of the things that belonged to my grandmother that I made sure was not thrown away was her cookbook and recipe cards. My daughters still cook some of their great grandmother’s finest.
Food does matter in history – thank for making that clear.
Friends and Family Helpful to have in war!
Thanks Leslie, If you get rid of the recipes you destroy the culture. It is true. Food does matter.
So true! My grandmothers were queens of clever food tricks. And lots of pickled things…
The Multicolored Diary