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Food for Thought

Delving into food history may add a better understanding not only of what our ancestors ate, but how it was prepared, how dishes (and their names) change over time, and what this, collectively, can tell us about their daily life.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Attending culinary school in Boston and studying food history, I was given the assignment to research the historical roots of a traditional family recipe. I chose my great-grandmother's peach cobbler, a variation on the Texas or Country Cobbler. It was fun to discover the cobbler's roots in Colonial America, even though the dish was not known by that name until the mid-1800s.

Life was harsh when the first settlers came to the new world. They left many of their possessions in Europe and started life anew in often harsh conditions. The settlers brought with them a love of desserts and recipes from their homelands. In the new world, however, desserts were often a luxury. Cooking utensils and ingredients were often in short supply. Because cobbler can be made from many types of fruits that are abundant in America, many different forms of the dessert were created. Cobblers were made from native fruits, including apples, berries, and peaches.

Without the resources of brick ovens . . . colonial cooks often made cobblers — also called slumps or grunts — and their cousins, pandowdies, in pots over an open fire. . . . In these types of pies, a filling made of fruit, meat or vegetable goes into a pot first; then a skin of dough is placed over the filling, followed by the pot's lid. As cobblers cook, the filling stews and creates its own sauce and gravy, while the pastry puffs up and dries." 1
A "grunt" was said to reflect the sound of the fruit bubbling as it cooked. The "slump" said to reflect the appearance of the top crust as it molded itself over the fruit. Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), author of the book, Little Women, named her Concord, Massachusetts home "Apple Slump."

The exact origin of the term "cobbler" is unknown, but some sources suggest it comes from the cobblestone look of the dough. The first use of the term appeared in 1839 edition of Kentucky Housewife by Lettice Bryan.

There are many variations of the cobbler. A traditional cobbler has a thick crust and a fruit filling. Some cobblers have a top and bottom crust, others have only a top crust, and some have a drop-biscuit topping. Crisps and crumbles have a layer of fruit on the bottom with a crumb topping. A betty commonly consists of a layer of fruit between layers of buttered crumbs. A buckle is usually made by adding a single layer of fruit to the batter. Another variation, my dad's specialty, is baked in a dutch oven.

Curious about other traditional foods, I found fried chicken can be traced back to the first century A. D. French toast can be traced even further back to the Ancient Romans, a dish the French called "Pain a la Romaine," or Roman bread. Deviled eggs are also traced back to the Romans; spicy stuffed eggs were known in 13th century Andalusia, although the name is said to be an 18th century invention.

The culinary arts are deeply rooted in our family history, and food with its social role and ability to prompt memory plays a huge role in all families. Looking into the history of family favorites may be just one more way to explore family history.

1 Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford encyclopedia of food and drink in America. Volume 2, K-Z.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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