Worn dog-eared cookbooks. Tattered food-stained recipe cards. Scraps of paper with handwritten ingredient lists for a favorite dish. These are treasured family keepsakes that reveal a lot about the food our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents prepared and ate. The lucky family historian who inherits these gems can replicate these dishes from days gone by. Handwritten notes in the margins of a cookbook can shed light on family favorites, and sometimes those not-so-favorite recipes.
These recipes won’t help you to add names to your family tree. But they will help you to learn more about your ancestors. Beyond their food preferences you can spot clues to how they fed their families. Examine the recipes and you’ll quickly learn that most older recipes used few kitchen gadgets beyond a knife, a spoon, and a pot. This was from-scratch cooking that was passed down from generation to generation.
So many memories can be linked to the food we’ve enjoyed. A particular dish can take us right back to our childhood. Family recipes can tie the generations together. A popular dish at the family dinner table when I was a child was my mother’s Golden Cheesy Rice, a casserole of rice, shredded carrots, cheese, and eggs. I loved it as a child and continued cooking it for my own children. It became one of their favorite casseroles, also. That simple rice casserole links together three generations.
Not all family recipes are handed down in written form. Great-grandma taught grandma how to make a beef stew. She in turn shared it with her children, but along the way, no one wrote it down. They just knew how to make it. Talk to your grandmother, or your mother, about these recipes. Ask them to share their recipes and techniques. Or better yet, invite them over and have a cooking session in your kitchen while you write down the recipe as it’s made. Documenting and sharing those recipes and the stories around them can keep memories alive.
Where to Find Old-Time Recipes
Where can you find recipes like our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents made? You might try looking in local historic newspapers. Many newspapers needed items to fill newspaper columns at the end of articles. Recipes filled the bill nicely. This recipe appeared in the 28 July 1887 issue of the Hopewell Herald (New Jersey) newspaper. Although today we might have questions about how to chop the tomatoes and what kind of crumbs to use, our great-grandmother intuitive knew how to turn these words into stewed tomatoes
Stewed Tomatoes — Cook 20 minutes before seasoning with a tablespoonful of butter, an even teaspoonful of sugar, less than half as much salt, a dash of pepper, and the merest suspicion of minced onion. Stew five minutes longer, add a teaspoonful of fine crumbs, boil up and serve.
Finding recipes specific to a time and place can add flavor to your family history. What to do if you are not fortunate enough to inherit grandma’s recipe file? Beginning in the mid-1800s, many churches and community organizations would solicit recipes from their members and publish them in book form, often as a fundraiser. Some of these books may be found on the shelves of the local public library or as part of the collection at an historical society or local museum. These books would reflect the prevailing cooking style for that time period and region. It’s entirely possible one or more of your ancestors contributed to a church or community cookbook.
The regional cookbook section at the local bookseller will have books with local favorites. Although you may not know what recipes your family actually cooked, the regional cookbooks will include common recipes for the area. Regional cookbooks as well as local community and church cookbooks can also be found at local libraries or historical societies. Recent digitization initiatives have created online portals to digitized cookbooks of all types and from all regions.
- The Cookbooks and Home Economics section of Internet Archive has thousands of scanned full-text books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
- The Kitchen Historic blog has links to digitized cookbooks from the United States, Australia, Canada, and a few European countries.
- The Feeding America collection, a part of the Historic American Cookbook Project on the Michigan State University libraries website, has links to digitized historic cookbooks that can be browsed alphabetically or by date or interest.
- The Iowa State University has over 3,000 historical cookbooks in its Special Collections Department. Several of those cookbooks have been digitized and placed online. Be sure to check university special collections near your research area. And be sure to search local libraries as well. The Lackawanna Valley Digital Archives, hosted by the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Public Library, has a collection of digitized community and church cookbooks from northeastern Pennsylvania.
Other sources for locating recipes of yesterday are websites and blogs. A Google search of cookbooks or recipes for the region you are researching will likely result in dozens of hits. What follows is a sampling of what you might find online.
- Classic Old-Fashioned Recipes from Mr. Food includes 42 vintage recipes, from homemade hash to country mac and cheese to old-fashioned stuffed cabbage to classic deep dish apple pie.
- Legends of America offers up dozens of Old West Cookin’ recipes. Simple recipes with simple ingredients.
- Old Fashioned Recipes is a website devoted to preserving these old recipes. There are over a dozen categories and most recipes include a personal story.
- Historic Sturbridge Village, located in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, depicts life in an early 19-century rural village. Costumed interpreters demonstrate this era’s cooking to the village’s visitors. Many of those recipes are on the Historic Recipes page of their website.
- A Taste of History with Joyce White is a blog focused on fun food history. Ms. White is a food historian and foodways consultant who shares historic recipes along with photos and a little history.
- Savoring the Past is a blog that shares the history of food along with many old time recipes.
The Food GenGuide has more information and resources for researching the food of our ancestors.
Copyright 2017, Phyllis Matthews Ziller, All Rights Reserved.