Family history Western history

Voice from the Past in a Cookbook!

While researching a Colorado pioneer character for an upcoming biography, I had difficulty finding her “voice”. Other people had plenty to say about her, good and bad. It was not until the final years of her life that she spoke out for others to hear. Unfortunately, by then, her thoughts were dominated by a spirit and dream world, leaving us with a jumble of disjointed perceptions.

As I waded through archival files, I was amused to find a pile of scribbled notes in my subject’s handwriting, which described remedies and recipes. At first, I gave them cursory attention, and set them aside. Then, I began to realize the truth. These notes were my character’s voice from the past! By preserving directions inside a well-used cookbook, she determined choices which provided signposts and clues about her daily life. Not only were personal preferences indicated by carefully saved instructions, but they also contained quotations, which gave cryptic meaning to her outlook and life.

One cookbook which contained notes was the White House Cookbook, published in 1887. Recipes were printed in paragraph format, containing little more instruction than a vague time frame, and whether to add fuel to the stove for a hotter fire. Some ingredients would be difficult to find now, or would defy logic in light of current cooking methods. For instance, one recipe suggested mixing a few “hops” with flour before baking. When I asked my friendly natural foods grocer about this item, he helpfully suggested I stop by a brew pub if I wished to find hops for my next baking project. I think I will pass on that one.

If you wish to get in touch with the past of your ancestors, pay attention to the well used cookbooks in their collection, as well as family recipes. Many cookbooks, such as the White House Cookbook, which is pictured here, have been republished and are available on the internet. I previously purchased an 1896 edition of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook as a solid example of American cooking, and a terrific historical resource.

Make sure you study household journals and recipe notes for unrelated items as well. You never know what you will find there.

If cooking is not your interest, other specialized books can contain voices from the past. Other titles might include topics such as gardening, woodworking, mechanics, sewing, livestock, agriculture, and the family bible. The fact that these resources were kept close at hand and were used liberally tells us quite a bit about their owners, their habits, interests, and beliefs. Think about the types of books which are important to your everyday life, and what they say about your identity.

Joyce B. Lohse, 12/15/09