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Cooking (and Eating) History: Beyond Grandma’s Recipes

Genealogists cherish every scrap of documented history, but one aspect of our ancestors' lives we can never save: their food. But can we recreate it authentically? Explore the challenges of trying to bring the past alive through the recipes left behind.


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Genealogists cherish every scrap of documented history: the records and photos we can look at, the heirlooms we can touch, the films or recordings we can watch or hear. But one aspect of our ancestors' lives is something they lived with constantly but which we can never save: their food. You might be lucky enough to be able to touch your great-great-grandmother's wedding dress, but the fresh taste of the wedding cake is gone forever. Or is it?

In "Edible Genealogy for the Holidays," we explored ways to revive a lost family dish. Now we'll look at the challenges of trying to bring the past alive through the recipes left behind.

Picking a Recipe

The first challenge is to determine which past you're looking into; it's not as easy to narrow down as you may think. "There are many pasts," wrote Laura Schenone,author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken and A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, and co-founder of food blog, in an e-mail. "I always look at social class because in the U.S. wealthy people ate very differently from the poor. And also, I look at geography and specific cultures because so many Americans descend from immigrants."

You could pick a dish which would have been common to one specific era in the particular region and country of your ancestors, keeping in mind whether they were laborers or prosperous merchants. You may want to pick something that your ancestors would have considered a special dish for holidays or celebrations, or even a higher-class dish your ancestors could have only dreamed of eating.

An old family cookbook, if you're lucky enough to have one, is one way to find an authentic recipe from your family's past. Historical cookbooks by region or nationality are another good place to start. Libraries, historical foundations, historical societies, or museums may have cookbooks and/or general information on historical cuisine, and online resources are plentiful as well. The Colonial Williamsburg society, for example, hosts an historic foodways project, re-creating the 18th century cuisine of wealthy colonial Virginians at

Another wonderful resource is Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. Dozens of classic American cookbooks from the late 1700s to the early 1900s can be found transcribed or viewed in their original images at the project's website: Titles include the famous 1896 The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book as well as regional, ethnic and working-class fare such as Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, Cooking in Old Creole Days, The Great Western Cook Book, and The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy.

How Authentic Is It?

Centuries of advancement in growing and transporting food, not to mention refrigeration and electrical appliances mean that while we can come close to knowing what the food of the past tasted like, we will never know for sure. Also, how savory would a historical recipe taste to modern tongues?

"Anyone passionate about history dreams of stepping into the past to experience it firsthand, and food can be a great point of entry," wrote Nancy Gail Ring, visual artist, co-founder of and author of food and genealogy memoir, Walking on Walnuts, in an e-mail. "As with anything, however, what we wish for can also surprise us in unexpected ways. Sometimes that's enjoyable, and sometimes it's disappointing."

According to medieval recreationists David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, the risk can be worthwhile. "[O]ne of the attractions of medieval cooking is that it lets us discover things we do not expect," they write in Cariadoc's Miscellany, "combinations of spices, or ways of preparing dishes, that seem strange to modern tastes yet turn out to be surprisingly good."

But not everyone has the stomach for authentic historical food, medieval or otherwise. How historical you create your dish will depend on who you're serving it to. On The Food Timeline website, Lynn Olver recommends adapting a recipe to expectations: preparing something for a historic event should balance contemporary tastes with the original recipe's instructions, while a more intense "foodways" project may strive for as much authenticity as possible. Also use common sense; most adults will tend to be more adventurous than most kids!

Making Changes

Unless you're prepared to forsake your oven for a stone hearth, you'll need to allow some modernity into your cooking technique when making your recipe. You'll also need to allow for "kitchen sense," ready to improvise your own measurements, temperatures, and cooking times.

Ingredients are another area where you'll have to make decisions. When Ring found a recipe for Banana Chess Pie, which called for an entire box of sugar, she cut the sugar and added other ingredients to enhance the texture. Trained as a pastry chef, Ring was comfortable and knowledgeable when changing the recipe, but even non-professional cooks can figure out when and where to make changes.

Food teacher and researcher Alice Ross, writing in the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, suggests practicing with a closely related modern recipe to get a feel for the taste and texture. "Then, try the old one, comparing it with what you have learned to expect (it won't necessarily be the same), and the results," she writes. "[T]hen apply some common sense, adjusting thickeners or liquids or seasonings as required."

You'll also need to decide how authentic your ingredients will be. "I've gone crazy doing things like getting hold of fresh farm lard to make a pie crust. And growing my own borage for an old recipe," wrote Schenone. "Sometimes it's been a joy to track down all the obscure ingredients to make Martha Washington's minced pie."

Schenone adds, however, that substituting common ingredients for hard-to-find ones may end up being one of the most historically authentic things you do with your recipe. "Cooks in the past were constantly substituting for what they didn't have in the house on a given moment, just as we do today," she wrote. "Authenticity can be measured in many other ways beyond ingredients."

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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