Merriam-Webster’s dictionary perhaps says it best. Foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical time period.” Foodways include the growth and production of food, methods of cooking, spices, who cooked the food, social occasions, and special events. Even the intangibles such as aroma, food’s association with memories, folktales and family oral traditions about certain foods or specific meals, and more, can be considered foodways.
One way to enrich your family history is to record or study the food traditions of your individual family. You can base this upon your own recollections, oral histories of older family members, or hand-me-down recipes. What influence did geography, season, class and economic circumstances, race, ethnicity or nationality, gender, and tradition have on daily or special occasion foods?
Here are a few examples from my own family.
My grandfather, a Southerner from Middle Tennessee, recalled some of the meals he would eat, growing up in “the country” in Moore County. I was surprised to learn that deer hunting was not popular, but that instead small game provided much of the meat for the family table—rabbits, squirrels, and even now and then a groundhog or a robin. “They’d go huntin’ for robins, just like you do for quail,” he explained. “Rabbit was a high class meat,” caught by trapping. Best of all was a possum. “Take that possum and clean him, put him in a big pan, pack some sweet potatoes on each side, and cook him that way. Best eatin’ you ever tasted in your life!”
As a small child, my grandfather would gather chestnuts or blackberries, sassafras and ginseng. Other recollections included stories about other family members. He recalled an uncle who was known for his ability to catch fish from creeks with his bare hands, and he talked about how his own grandfather would drive hogs 15 miles to market.
On the other side of my family, Germanic and seafood influences predominate. I recall being in my grandparent’s house in Baltimore during the summer, where newspapers would be spread out on the table, and heaps of steamed crabs with their pungent odor would be piled high. Mallets cracked the shells and people ate the crabs in much the same manner as fried chicken, gnawing at the meat inside. Discarded shells were tossed into a nearby bucket. The crabs came from a corner shop just across the street, where every evening the odor drifted into the street.
Another dish common in my grandparent’s home was “sour beef and dumplings,” made from a recipe handed down from my grandfather’s mother, a German immigrant. Although my grandfather’s wife was Polish, she learned German cooking from her mother-in-law, and now and then German dishes would be on the table.
Another favorite tradition from that side of my family was carried on into my own family. Every Christmas, enormous quantities of a heavily floured sugar cookie dough would be rolled out into thin sheets. As the ingredients were combined in a mixer, eventually the dough would become too thick for the mixer to handle. The rest of the work would be done by hand. It often took several hours, with the entire family helping. The dough was so thick, family members could only work so long, kneading and mixing it, before another member of the family would have to provide relief. Sore muscles the next day were common. Finally, the entire kitchen table would be cleared , then floured, and the dough would be rolled into one massive but thin sheet. Traditional cookie cutters were used to cut the dough and would be rapped onto a cookie sheet with a sharp sound to release the dough. Even a half recipe made about eighty cookies. We would freeze some, and have Christmas cookies well past Easter.
Another favorite, special dessert I enjoyed as a child was my mother’s French Silk pie. A rich fluffy chocolate filling would be poured into a graham cracker pie shell and crowned with a whipped topping with chocolate shavings as a garnish. This was a birthday specialty.
Family foodways often take the form of traditional recipes, passed down through multiple generations. Other foodways might revolve around special occasions, such as a visit from distant relatives, birthdays, holidays, weddings, or funerals. Some foodways might involve foods unique to particular ethnic backgrounds or specific geographic regions. Still others have simply become treasured memories of times gone by, like my grandfather’s recollections of country eating in rural, poor Tennessee in the early twentieth century.
What foodways and customs does your family preserve or recall today?
Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at www.lindabarnickel.com.