It’s that time of the year when we think about memories of family. Part of those memories revolves around food. Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas and Hannukah meals, New Years' celebrations. As we say goodbye to 2020, you may be remembering and wishing for big dinners served with family favorites.
I’ve been presenting, teaching, and posting about family food history for years. I think it’s one aspect of family history that gets overlooked even though it’s something that is meaningful to the non-genealogists in our families. Family history is so much more than just names and dates.
Are you looking to document or tell the story of your family’s food history? Not sure where to start? It’s a huge topic that would take a month-long course to unpack but in lieu of that, there are some books that can provide you with ideas and help. They are good examples of how to tell your family’s food history or how other people have done it.
- The Lost Ravioli Recipe of Hoboken by Laura Schenone. I love this book because it’s the story of a food writer who has questions about her great-grandmother's ravioli recipe and so she researches it. It’s her quest for the history of a recipe and her family. She traces her family from New Jersey to Italy and not only learns more about her ancestry she also figures out why her ancestral ravioli recipe has a rather “unique” ingredient. It’s a great example of family food history, immigration, and understanding our ancestors in time and place.
- Preserving Family Recipes. How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions by Valerie J Frey. The publisher’s website provides the tagline, “A step-by-step guide for the family food genealogist.” This is a great book to help you as you put together your family’s food history. “This book is a guide for gathering, adjusting, supplementing, and safely preserving family recipes and for interviewing relatives, collecting oral histories, and conducting kitchen visits to document family food traditions from the everyday to special occasions. It blends commonsense tips with sound archival principles, helping you achieve effective results while avoiding unnecessary pitfalls.”
- The Cooking Gene by Michael W Twitty. “A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.” Twitty combines his family history with Southern food history. His website provides additional information and I recommend his FAQs to understand his passion behind food and family history.
- When French Women Cook. A Gastronomic Memoir by Madeleine M. Kamman. Have you ever picked up a book, read a few pages, and fell in love? That’s how I feel about this book. I had never heard of it when I picked it up at my local Friends of the Library bookstore. Published in 1976 each chapter tells the story of a woman accompanied by recipes. This is the story of the author’s life but also the amazing women she knew. One of the things Kamman was concerned with was how women get written out of food history. Their recipes are used and published by chefs but not attributed, especially when the woman is "just a housewife." This book seeks to show how women and what they offered to their family and friends could be documented. I’d love to see a genealogist do something similar with their family history. Although my copy of the book is the original, you can buy a more recent edition.
- My last recommendation is Dianne Jacob’s Will Write for Food. The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes and More. This book is meant for people who want to write professionally about food. However, it’s perfect for anyone interested in how to write a book (including family cookbooks), how to write recipes, write food history published on blogs, memoirs and more. Essentially it’s a great all-around book for those interested in writing. I highly recommend it and it’s written in a way that you can skip the chapters that don't relate to your project. And yes, there is a right and wrong way to write recipes and that’s essential to know as you pass along your family’s food history. I also recommend the author’s newsletter for more tips and links to what she is reading about food history. You can sign up for it on her blog.
There are so many great examples of books that combine family and food history. I have bookshelves of them but the above list is a good starting point to consider as you document your family’s food memories, recipes, and document food-related heirlooms. You could even consider my book, From the Family Kitchen.
Now’s a great time to consider documenting your family’s food history. Consider adding this history to your family history.