Tuesday, November 1, 2011

When Food is Family and Family is Food

When washing rice, preparing vegetables, and so on, do so with your own hands, with close attention, vigorous exertion, and a sincere mind. Do not indulge in a single moment of carelessness or laziness. Do not allow attentiveness to one thing [to] result in overlooking another.”

From Tenzo Kyoken (Instructions for the Cook) , written by the Zen Master Dogen of the Kannon Dôri Kôshô Hôrin Monastery in 1237.

This is good Zen master advice for any kitchen chef - and also good advice for life in general.   It’s especially on target if you substitute “When doing family research” for the “When washing rice, preparing vegetables” part.

So, now that I’ve got you thinking of food and family …

Chances are, if you’ve ever heard or used the word “smear cheese” to refer to cottage cheese or some kind of spreadable soft cheese, you have a German speaking ancestor (or two or three), or you lived in a place thickly settled by German speakers.  Like language, food is complicated, political and filled with information. People in some parts of the world – out of simple necessity - eat to live, while in other parts, they live to eat. 

What people eat matters.  It helps define who they are.  

For example, a teacher-friend in Uganda years ago rejoiced when the annual swarms of locusts returned to our school compound. His children would gather them up in sacks - hundreds of them - , remove the wings and then his wife would fry them up until they were crisp like bacon.  

However, for him, the very thought of humans eating lobster was abhorrent. In his universe, lobsters were decidedly NOT FOOD.  Locusts, on the other hand ...    

Food is sustenance, but it also transmits both culture and memory.

For many of us, specific foods can trigger vivid and highly specific memories and also help define long-past special events.  For French writer Marcel Proust, it was the smell of a cookie, specifically madeleines, served with tea, that evoked those memories of times past and resulted in a great novel.  For my mother’s step-mother, it wasn’t Thanksgiving unless she had a slice of my mother’s chocolate pie topped high with real whipped cream for dessert. Mince-meat, apple or pumpkin pies never said “HOLIDAY” to her. 

Only chocolate pie with real whipped cream would do.

For me, the thought of a steaming bowl of my other grandmother’s thick vegetable soup made with whatever bounty Fitz the Vegetable Man had on his truck that day still conjures up memories of cool Fall days, long, dark Saturday nights and of being ten again.

For Mrs. Blogger, it’s root beer:  memories of her father’s homemade concoction, in turn triggering memories of her grandfather’s hand-cranked, homemade vanilla ice cream, served up on the porch in the lazy summertime of rural West Virginia.  

The memory of a frosty float with homemade root beer and homemade ice cream…almost heaven.

Last week, while hosting Mrs. Blogger’s brother, I dug out their Aunt Dollie’s recipe for Fried - Baked Apples, southern West Virginia-style.  The recipe, written out in longhand on a small piece of lined paper by Dollie more than 30 years ago, is more narrative than recipe, with her cooking instructions, admonitions and advice.   

Moreover, it’s a recipe that Dollie  - born in 1908 - had likely made hundreds of times,  until it was second nature and burned indelibly into her memory. In fact, it’s unlikely she ever wrote it down  -  -  until we asked her for it.

It’s only a scrap of paper, but it still has a voice that speaks out loud and clear, even though Dollie herself died nearly two decades ago.

If I were to ask, “What food triggers the strongest family memory for you?”, you’d likely have no trouble answering.  After all, we carry our memories around with us, ready for almost instant retrieval, just as soon as the right triggers go off.

However, what if I were to ask you, “What foods were the favorites of your great-grandparents and what food reminded them of THEIR grandparents?”  That’s a much tougher question, even for genealogists.  That’s because it’s a question rarely – if ever – asked.

Few of us ever thought to ask our grandparents – or even our parents – about food memories.   Still, learning about our ancestor’s foodways is yet another way we can come closer to understanding how they actually lived their lives. 

Our family food memories can easily slip away, in all the hustle and bustle of exploring new digitized records and new online databases.  Still, if we really want to understand who “our people” were, the foods that were important to them should become the focus of our family research, right along with their vital statistics and the houses they lived in.

Our research might be as simple as paging through our grandmother’s well-worn cookbook and retrieving and scanning all those handwritten “receipts” that call for a “pinch” of this and a “three dollops” of that.  Still, we might decide to take the “more complex and scholarly” road, tracking down original old country store account books in archival collections to learn what foods were available commercially in rural areas where our ancestors lived. 

Then there are those scholarly articles written by historians that detail and explain the evolution of the sometimes complicated dietary codes that some religious groups followed. 

Society of Friends (Quaker) ancestors?  Learning that many Quaker families avoided cane sugar entirely because it was contaminated by its association with the social evil of West Indian slavery can be enlightening.

I’ll be playing with this “food and memory and family and history” concept for the next several posts.  After all, Thanksgiving – that King of family food holidays -  is just around the corner.

Stay tuned.  

(Oh, and by the way, properly fried fresh locusts are kinda bacon-y)


  1. I'm with Mrs. Blogger, although with a twist. My daughter and I treasure A&W root beer floats where the ice cream is so cold it creates root beer crystals on its surface. We drive nearly 50 miles to get them as special treats.

  2. Mel, this post really spoke to me! All my best childhood memories are about food. And my food definitely reflects my heritage. I did a post about cream gravy and told the story of my great grandmother.