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Genealogy and Food: Food and the Social History of your Ancestors

When writing about an ancestor it can be interesting to add family recipes that today's generations can try. For those of us who don't have access to a collection of family recipes there are several ways that you can learn about the foods of previous generations.


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Last week, I was looking over my son's elementary school cafeteria menu for the month. One of the choices for Friday's menu was Rainbow Trout Treasures. Now, for some reason that seems weird to me it strikes me as some sort of combination of fish and Lucky Charms cereal. I'm not sure that I would want to eat that let alone imagining children eating it. Later, I found out that this was the school's creative wording for what are essentially fish sticks. But it made me think of how food has evolved from previous decades and how the food our ancestors, or even our grandmothers, ate might be really different from what we are used to eating. Obviously, menus and tastes differ as a result of the changes in what foods are readily available; technology including the advent of refrigeration, canning and freezing, and the influx of different cultures and their introduction of 'new' foods into the American culture. When writing about an ancestor it can be interesting to add family recipes that today's generations can try. For those of us who don't have access to a collection of family recipes there are several ways that you can learn about the foods of previous generations.

Family Stories

A good way to start your quest for the foods of yesteryear is to ask family members what they remember eating when they were children. We often assume that everyone eats the same things, but this cannot be further from the truth. While my mother mostly fed our family casseroles and jello, her mother raised chickens and rabbits. My grandmother was largely self-sufficient, she had to be with nine children, and utilized produce from her garden and the animals the family raised. One of my mother's father's favorite foods was headcheese. This was made by my grandmother and served to the family instead of what many of us would consider as a traditional meat dish. Although our family recipe for headcheese has not survived, you can find the recipe at,,1626,144187-250192,00.html. And for those of us who may be younger, headcheese has nothing to do with cheese, made from milk.

Obviously, many of the foods that were eaten even a generation ago do not always appeal to the modern day palette. We live in an age where we are able to be more 'picky' about what we eat and rely less on what we 'have' to eat, because food is so plentiful for us here in the United States. Because of this, those foods and recipes known and used in previous generations get lost to future generations.


Reading old cookbooks provides you with ideas for what recipes may have been a part of your ancestor's everyday life. Although an older cookbook won't be totally representative of what your ancestor ate, consider how representative our cookbooks of today are with our family menus; it will give you an idea of what foods were available to your ancestor and what recipes they may have fed to their families.

Feeding America, found at, is a project of the Michigan State University Library and the MSU Museum. The collection includes digital images of 76 cookbooks spanning the late 18th to early 20th century. You can search the collection by simply browsing it by date or an alphabetical title list, or you can search the collection by recipe, cookbook title, or ingredient. At this website you can look at a copy of the first cookbook written by an American, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in 1798. This 47-page cookbook will be of interest to genealogists as they try to read writing styles that are over 200 years old. Scripted "f's" that are "s" might help to remind us that writing styles, including the way letters were written, differed for previous generations. This cookbook not only provided recipes but also advice about how to pick out the freshest meats and even when it is best to catch fish. The book begins by reciting what foods are best to grow in the garden, how to pick the freshest food and what foods are not as desirable. About using the freshest Salmon Trout, Mrs. Simmons wrote,

Of all fresh water fish, there are none that require or so well afford haste in cookery, as the Salmon Trout, they are best when caught under a fall or cateract (sic)—from that philosophical circumstances is yet unsettled, yet true it is, that at a foot of a fall the waters are much colder than at the head; Trout choose those waters; if taken from them and hurried into dress, they are genuinely good; and take rank in point of superiority of flavor, of most other fish.
In case you were wondering about other meats, Mrs. Simmons says that peacocks are a little on the tough side.

While early cookbooks didn't provide the formulaic recipe that we are use to today with measurements and advice on what quantity a particular recipe will make, it was in 1896 that Fannie Farmer wrote the first cookbook that would resemble what we are use to today. Her cookbook, Boston Cooking School Cook Book included precise measurements and instructions for cooking the recipes. You can read Fannie Farmer's cookbook that include 1,849 recipes through and their Great Books Online website, Yes, Fannie Farmer was a real person and her cookbook is still being updated today, but not by her. For a biography on Fannie, click on,1626,144187-250192,00.html.

One way that you can gather old cookbooks is by haunting thrift stores and flea markets. I often pick up cookbooks from these places that are as old as 50-plus years. Online purveyors of used books include Abe books, and Alibris,; these two sites include hundreds of used booksellers. While shopping online is convenient you need to beware, online booksellers are going to price their books according to price guides in competition with other booksellers and what price they believe the market will bear. Often, older cookbooks can be quite pricey, so if there is a certain title you are interested in, you may need to shop around to get the best price. Now, cookbooks are the one type of book that was actually used by its former owner so, often they are not going to be in great condition but they will serve as an excellent reference book for you in filling in some information about your ancestor's life.

Previous Eras and International Foods

Maybe you are just interested in a certain time period and how food was prepared then or what people ate. My recommendation is to use the search engine Google for your search. Try search phrases such as "19th century cooking," "Civil War cooking," or "Colonial cooking." By googling the phrase, "19th century cooking," you will receive hits for everything from recipes from that time period to that era's cooking utensils to kitchen technology of that time. The phrase "Civil War cooking" brings up great sites that not only tell you what hardtack is made of, but also supplies discussions on the logistics of feeding the soldiers of the Civil War. Some of my favorites include Feeding the Soldier from the America Civil War website,; The Civil War Cookbook,; and Civil War Links to Food, Funerals and Burial Practices,

For those who want to explore their immigrant ancestor's cuisine, you may want to check out the web site FoodBooks, This web site includes such cuisines as Polish and Italian and has cookbooks for sale that detail cuisines from earlier time periods, including the medieval. Another interesting site that includes dishes from around the globe is, InMamasKitchen, This web site featuring the recipes of contributors' mothers, includes recipes from such places as Puerto Rico, China, Cuba, Australia, Israel, and Austria. Twenty-six countries are represented at this web site where you can search recipes by country or even look at recipes posted for a certain season or holiday. Articles about food, cooking paraphernalia and the mother's the recipes originated from are included on this site. Although this is a cooking web site it really is more of a genealogy site where people are immortalizing their mothers and other family members in a type of social history forum.

While it is unlikely that I will be preparing my grandmother's recipe for headcheese anytime soon, knowing what our ancestor's ate and what recipes they cooked provides us with more details about their lives. These details can only help us write more comprehensive family history narratives that even the non-genealogist among us will be interested in.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

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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