The start of a new year tends to be a time when people do a lot of organizing—cleaning out closets, tidying drawers, and generally bringing order to their lives. I hope that you are considering doing the same with your family history collection—your photographs, documents, stories and heirlooms. One aspect of the family legacy that often gets overlooked—but shouldn’t!—is the assortment of family recipes that you have accumulated and your food heritage.
Understanding the foodways—or the culinary practices—that belong to your family can provide a window into your ancestors’ lives: their ethnic/cultural background, where they lived, their family traditions, even something about their values.
Do you know your family’s traditions that are centered around food? If not, I encourage you do to what you can to discover as much as possible. Ask your older relatives. Look for clues in old letters or journals. Do you have photographs that include a kitchen or dining room?
Do you have a cookbook that was a prized possession of one of your ancestors? Or a recipe written in your grandmother’s hand? If so, you are lucky! Don’t worry if those recipes haven’t made their way down to you yet, but be proactive about collecting them. Ask your relatives if they have copies of family recipes. Even if a family member is the same generation as you, a recipe might have been passed down to him/her. You might be surprised which recipes were passed down and to whom.
If a recipe isn’t written down, maybe there is someone who still makes that particular recipe and a written record of that traditional family food can be created. If course, you might have to translate what a dash of this or a handful of that means!
While you are collecting family recipes and cookbooks, I encourage you to also collect stories about the special meals, the traditional foods and everything surrounding your family’s culinary heritage. You’ll find that you are collecting not just the foods and how they were prepared, but also their meaning to your family and how they fit into the larger understanding of your family’s history.
Once you have collected a group of recipes, find the best way to preserve them. I encourage you to scan original documents if you have them. Perhaps you want to combine everything into a book, so you could share the recipes with other family members. Or start an online page that is accessible to your family. Try out the recipes yourself. You could even bring back some of those family traditions that have faded away. In the end, I think you’ll find that your food heritage is an important—and fun!—piece of your family history.