03 May 2010

Food: Seasoning family history

Take a look at what our families eat at special occasions, holidays or lifecycle events.

We tend to recreate the "warm fuzzies" of our childhood customs and traditions which, in turn, were part of the everyday life of our immigrant ancestors.

In my grandmother's Brooklyn kitchen was a knife that always looked primitive to my American eyes, its large blade needed constant sharpening and it had a worn wooden handle. There were cast-iron frying pans, a dual chopper (today called a mezzaluna), a scarred wooden bowl (used with the chopper).

The knife, frying pans, chopper and wooden bowl found their way to my mother's kitchen and some of them wound up in my kitchen. The knife was made by my great-grandfather, and I heard other family stories about the provenance of other items. Lots of chopped liver was made in that wooden bowl with that mezzaluna. Blintzes came out of those blackened frying pans.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's "Food tells a family story" demonstrates how traditions keep family history alive through the generations.

It details the 1891 trip of the author's great-great-grandmother who arrived from Sweden with a suitcase and two children to join her husband in Missouri. In the suitcase were a knive and rolling pin.

The story quotes Dawn Orsak, a Texas food expert, on the importance of food history.
Almost 120 years later, the sturdy black-handled knife with razorlike teeth and the long, smooth rolling pin are still in use in my grandmother's kitchen, less than 40 miles from where her grandmother first unpacked them after the long journey.
"You don't see anything like it this day and age," my grandmother said of the knife. "It's never been sharpened. Doesn't need it. Only thing I ever use it for is to cut angel food cake and bread, of course." She went on to explain that her mother used the knife to cut coffeecake during Scandinavian club meetings she hosted in the 1930s.
My sister and I have old cookbooks with recipes and notes in our mother's handwriting. Just reading them brings back the memories. Some recipes were successes and family favorites, while others not so successful. One recipe not recorded - thank heaven for small miracles - was developed when my mother got a new kitchen gadget (a blender) and decided to make tuna fish salad in it. Not a good idea.

I do remember Mom adding lots of matzo meal and making tuna patties instead. They were pretty good. But the "tuna fish salad soup" was never attempted again.
"Some people are after recipes, but I'm after stories," says Orsak, who specializes in recording history through food traditions. From generation to generation, we pass down food traditions, habits, recipes, cookbooks, and even utensils that carry with them historical details as unique as our genetic code, but many of us don't think to record that history.
Food is a great starting point for preserving family history because it's so visceral, Orsak says. "Everybody likes talking about food, and it brings up memories you wouldn't think of otherwise."
My grandmother would visit us in the Bronx after a long subway ride from Brooklyn, laden with jars, boxes and shopping bags. I guess she thought we didn't have food in the wilds of the Bronx. Knaidlach, soup, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage and more came out of those bundles.

Of course, Tracing the Tribe is also guilty of the same thing.

When our daughter went off to Brown University, I visited her one weekend during her first year. My cross-country suitcases contained 10 pounds of frozen saffron-lemon-onion marinated broiled Persian jujeh kabob (breast meat chunks), a large container of frozen mosama bademjan (beef in an eggplant-tomato-cinnamon sauce), along with a large first-cut kosher brisket that I would cook that weekend in the Brown Hillel kitchen.

The airport porter asked if I had rocks in the suitcases. Well, yes, sort of.

What's that, you're saying? Providence, Rhode Island had food rationing? Well, there certainly wasn't a Persian restaurant and home-style kosher brisket wasn't anywhere I could see. She began eating the frozen kabob pieces from the bag and used a plastic spoon to scrape the tomato eggplant sauce, all while we were still in the taxi from the airport.

As a Jewish mother, I knew I had done the correct thing - my grandmother would have been proud.

Orsak says that if you are interested in your ethnic heritage, start with food as it is the longest-lasting cultural tradition. The favorite foods stay around long after a language or other traditions are lost.

She suggests that people prepare family cookbooks to distribute to relatives, including a favorite recipe and who used to prepare it. Bring family heritage to life by sharing important traditional dishes.

Who knows what will trigger an interest in genealogy and family history?

The link also provides a recipe for a nice coffeecake - so try it out.

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