Family History Clues Found in our Food

The food we eat is often based on our culture, our ethnicity and geography – all great clues for a genealogist. Take my family for example, my mom never learned about cooking from her mother, who died when my mom was only 13. Even though we did not grow up with a lot of family recipes handed down through the generations, there were still clues about who we are, where our family was from and our culture.

As a child at Christmas time, every year in our stockings we got a coconut. I thought Santa brought everyone coconuts. Didn’t really know what to do with the coconut and the fun was taking the hammer to smash it open. It wasn’t until years later, that my mother mentioned that her family got a box every Christmas from her mother’s family in Hawaii. The box always contained coconuts and a hand-woven hat made from palm frons that my grandmother would wear while gardening. You can see my grandmother wearing one of the hats in the picture on the left located in the Family Cherished blog banner at the top of the page. Mom remembered this tidbit when we attended our Hawaiian Mossman reunion last November and she saw similar hats. Connecting the dots from the coconuts to my Hawaiian family history might have been a clue if I hadn’t already been aware of my Hawaiian connection.

The food we eat at holidays, our comfort foods, our ‘go-to dishes’ may give us insight into our family history, tell our life story or just help us honor and cherish our ancestry. If I was going to write my family history in food, here are some of them that could tell my life story.

1. One of my earliest memories of food recollections is Banana Cream pie and how much my daddy loved it. We are talking old-fashioned Southern Banana Cream pie made with vanilla wafers and topped with a meringue topping, which later switched to Cool-whip when I got a little older. It wasn’t until my husband and I lived in Mississippi for a year that I understood how big a cultural tradition this pie is in the South. At first, I couldn’t figure out why the store had huge piles of over-ripe bananas until I saw all the vanilla wafer boxes stacked up beside them. Just seeing or thinking about Banana Cream pie brings me back to my childhood.
2. Now this isn’t so much as a dish, as much as it was a treat that began with my Grandpa Brown.

Grandpa Samuel Thomas Brown would always give us grandkids a box of Cracker Jacks whenever we were leaving from a visit.

It turns out that Grandpa would also give his only child, my father James  Brown a box when he came home on leave during WWII. My dad and mom, now grandparents just sent a box to my son who is serving a 2 year mission for our church in Texas. Great grandfather, to grandfather, to grandson, a family legacy continues with a simple box of caramel corn and way too few peanuts – tying generations together.

Cracker Jacks has become a way of saying ‘I love you’ in my family. My dad tearfully slipped a foiled paper box into his father’s casket as a parting reminder of the love that had been shared between them. Cracker Jacks will forever be a part of my family history.
3. Ivar’s Fish and Chips from the pier in Seattle is forever imbedded in my memory and I think my DNA.

Beyond the many, many trips to the Seattle pier, memories of dad driving around like a crazy man under the viaduct searching for the perfect parking place, feeding the seagulls french fries from our hands, staring into the cracks in the sidewalk to view Elliot Bay beneath…it was the intense cravings for the Ivar’s English style fish and chips with malt vinegar during one of my pregnancies while living in New Jersey and 3000 miles from the nearest Ivars that convinced me that I must have a genetic and psychological need for it.

The memories that are stored with memorable food experiences is powerful stuff. Growing up in the Northwest, I have great memories associated with salmon and blackberries. Eating sushi or curry rice brings back many fond memories of living in Japan. One dish that my mom taught me how to make, an amazing meatloaf my daughter Jackie wants to learn and pass on to her future family.

Ziti reminds me of the friendship offered by new friends when we moved to NJ when I had no idea of what Ziti was and had been stunned by an aisle full of different pasta at the grocery store. Just as I was equally floored when we moved to Wisconsin and the long aisle of cheese – my son was in heaven!
Granted that any future genealogist trying to trace our family’s geographic locations through our food would really need to be physic because we have moved around a lot, 14 times, 7 states in 26 years of marriage. But, maybe your family has foods like fried bologna, chicken and dumplings and hush puppies and if you are not sure where to look for records – the foods might point to start looking in the South.

Families that eat together are shown to be happier, their kids stay out of trouble more, do better in school and are more bonded. When we look at those special foods in our families, the foods that stir up memories along with a delicious aroma – and when we serve them with a heaping help’ in of our family history stories and memories, a new generation will connect in even deeper ways with those who have gone before.

So take a look at your family food favorites. What clues or information does it give you about your family, your culture, your history? Save those recipes, those memories and pass it on.                                                                      

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