Discovering your culinary heritage provides insight into your ancestors’ lives and ethnic background. Find out what your ancestors ate.
Food is a big part of our culture and heritage. Food unites us, and foods bond us.
We may gather around a table as a family or we simply prepare and eat foods tradionally made in our families. Either food has a unique way of uniting family and friends.
Think about the most important events or periods in your life- celebrations, losses, travels, transitions. A lot of those memories involve food, right?
The foods we cook and eat tell stories of who we are and where we’ve been. The foods we eat tell the stories of our ancestors, too.
Whether you’ve come across recipes and food photos during your genealogy research, or you’d like to sample dishes on your family heritage travels, here’s how to find out what your ancestors ate!
What IS Your Culinary Heritage?
The foods and dishes your ancestors ate tell a lot about them.
Do you see consistent foods that show up at a family reunion or at the family Christmas dinner? What foods do you see in old family photographs?
What your ancestor ate can indicate the family’s ethnic heritage. My family reunions and church cover dish suppers tend to be heavy on the sweet tea and deviled eggs! You guessed it, my Southern U. S. roots run deep!
Dinner at a friend’s home is a delicious meal of beans and rice reflecting her Puerto Rican heritage. [These are the best rice and beans.]
Does your family enjoy a unique gelatinous dessert of grape juice and cornstarch with one walnut on top? If so, you may be seeing the influence of your Georgian heritage.
What your ancestors ate reflects more than just their tastes. Their foods reflect what was available to them and the economy.
Clues to Your Culinary Heritage at the Family Reunion
Finding clues to what your particular family ate can be seen at the family reunion or the Thanksgiving table. Always at our Talbott Thanksgiving spread were butter beans. Ugh….I did not (and still don’t!) like butter beans. But butter beans were easily grown where my ancestors lived, so butter beans made an appearance at the dinner table often.
Thank goodness for cornbread! Cornbread made by the generations of women in the family again hints at that southern heritage.
Consider what shows up at your table for family gatherings? Do sausages and bratwurst represent your German heritage? Do your relatives sit down for afternoon coffee with pulla? Their Finnish heritage is evident!
The more time immigrant ancestors and subsequent generations spend in a country, their food preferences may have changed or the traditional foods may have changed based on what was available in their new country. That’s okay. The basics are typically still there and recognizable as traditional recipes.
Now let’s think back further in the generations. What about the geneartions in late 1800’s and early 1900’s? What did they eat?
Grab those old family photos. If possible, you really want to look at those candid photos taken at a family gathering. You know the ones….a birthday party for an older family member, the yearly family reunion or the family Christmas dinner.
Look at the food table closely. Use a photo editing tool such as MyHeritage in Color and their photo enhancement tool or Vivid-Pix to edit the photo and get a close up look at the food on the table. What do you see? You will literally be looking at your family’s culinary heritage!
Culinary Heritage Clues in Your Traditional Genealogy Research
As you research your immigrant ancestors you will be finding clues and definittive evidence of where your ancestor immigated from.
Find the place of birth for your immigrant ancestor(s) and the birth place of their parents in census records. Does the census record indicate your ancestor was naturalized or filed papers for naturalization? Seek those out to learn where your ancestor immigrated from.
Ship passenger lists will often indicate where a passenger is from and potentially what town.
On rare occasions, I see a country or former residence mentioned in a deed record. Usually, the document reads something like “John White, formerly of Scotland….” .
Genealogy Tip: Never assume any record does not have information on your ancestor until you look!
Community Resources to Learn More About What Your Ancestors Ate
If you want to learn more about what types of foods your ancestors ate, look to their community. Seek out the history of the community and who settled the area. Was that community’s culture heavily influenced by the settlers’ home country? You can discover that by learning the local history. While researching from home, use Google books to find those local histories.
Seek out local community and church cookbooks. Cookbooks will definitely shed light on popular and common recipes for a commuity and/or group.
BONUS: Vintage cookbooks are good places to find your female ancestors!
Read the local newspapers for the time period you are interested in. Not only will you find recipes, but also write-ups of events that have taken place. Foods may be mentioned in the write-up of a family reunion or a church potluck.
Lastly, perform a good “old fashioned” Google search.
Did you disover your family immigrated from Lithuania? Again, Google to the rescue. The ancestors likely ate potato pancakes, fried cheese curd, and beetroot soup.
Listen as my daughter and I discuss our favorite food memory about ….cornbread!
Why Culinary Heritage?
Why should we purse our culinary heritage?
We are genealogy researchers. We research records and get excited to investigate cemeteries. After all, knowing what our ancestors ate and how those foods continue to appear on our own tables will not get us further back in the generations.
You’re right. It won’t tell who that 4th great grandmother is.
But knowing our culinary heritage will connect us through the generations. Cultural foods will help children and non-genealogy family members to the previous generations. The food starts conversations.
Food unites us, and foods bond us.
Other Posts of Interest:
- Where Did My Immigrant Ancestors Come From?
- How to Use Vintage Cookbooks in Your Genealogy Research
- Women In History – Overcoming the “Just a Housewife” Myth