Cooking By Countries: Material Culture of Gastronomic Variety

My ambitions in life are simple. They seem to idealize a 2.5 children married suburban lifestyle that I do not have. I did not intend to write about food. Although perhaps apparent to readers, I am learning that I have unusual thought processes.  That makes me grin. I cook according to organization: what is on hand for cooking turns into dishes from various cultures cross-referenced by what foods traditionally grow in those countries.

When shopping, I choose ingredients that are fresh and on sale. When planning a meal, I think of items in terms of international cuisine. Certain ingredients go better with particular countries, mainly due to their inherent growing climates and conditions. I am a huge “ethnic food” fan and find that my taste buds only balk when faced with items pickled to the point of turning black such as in the case of Korean black pickled eggs. I will try almost anything else. Those eggs leave me with a “shut my eyes and try it” quandary.

I also follow a dietary code where I do not consume alcohol, coffee, tea, tobacco products, or harmful (non-prescription) drugs. Yes, this makes cooking interesting when one is a huge foodie. It also makes consumption interesting when there is an entire world’s worth of alcohol and coffee available. I am of legal age in my country and can  partake of all of it, and yet do not. This choice does not make me any better or worse than anyone else. It is simply my choice. Vegetarians or vegans do not upset me so long as the persons practicing this do not act superior to me. In many ways, I follow a similar diet with a heavy vegetable focus. I also love and consume bacon so I am not traditional Hebraic/Jewish kosher, although I adore kosher food. Although not directly part of my prescribed dietary code, I also do not consume cola drinks. This has intra-cultural meanings and ramifications that most people probably would not understand and I am not spelling out here unless asked. It was how I grew up, and I do not hold it against anyone for drinking Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, etc. I simply do not.

Okay, those are my food  ground rules for the reader to understand. I am extremely lucky that I have no known food allergies. Various family members are allergic to shrimp and strawberries. My mother was allergic to tobacco. My sister has a lactose problem inherited from my father’s side of the family. Although I will consume them when needed, I am not in favor of walnuts (bitter things!) and my sister despises green beans. When shopping for only myself, I get to choose anything within the parameters of personal tastes and dietary code. I think that everyone has their own health code, whether received from the pages of Women’s World or Real Simple, or from the Koran, Torah, or from their country’s equivalent of the FDA.

Part of me wants to learn how to cook/consume properly every vegetable in the produce section. While I learned excellent home-cook skills and refine techniques regularly, there are still ingredients that I have not yet tried. I think that the variety of foods in nature is wonderful.

How does this have anything to do with material culture or with family history? It may be surprising how much. Over Thanksgiving, there were food dishes that vanished within a few minutes and others that made leftovers a joyous occasion. When considering my family’s background, I think about what was available to an ancestor, and when. The nutrients ancestors consumed affect us now. There is a reason that medical health history grows as a field within genealogy. Finding out that a multiple-times great-grandfather drank to excess helps me stay resilient in my personal choice not to drink. While many people have no problems with drinking, I value my own family (here and now, and future potential family) too much to mess with something that could trap me and keep me a prisoner in that sense. I do not want to turn on the gene that goes with alcoholism. Other diseases like diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure also run in families and I try to eat in ways that stave off diseases. Every family member dies from causes having direct relationship to how and what they ate besides accidents.

I cannot afford to shop at expensive and ritzy grocery stores often although I love looking around and seeing what is available. I like knowing about resources. For me, that is fun. I take what I learn from reading readily made food labels and figure out how to make something myself utilizing Internet and library recipe resources, cross-referencing known traditional cultural information (cardamom is a really fun spice and goes well with coconut milk, for example) and syncing it with what I have in my fridge or cupboard. It sounds complex. After doing it for a little while, suddenly food is a dance of sense and palates. While I do not consume various products, I do not miss them, either. There are plenty of creative ways of making excellent dishes. Variety is the spice of life!

The Book That Started It All: My Impetus into Public History

Recently, a professor asked what book we would recommend/ what got us started in the Public History field. Here’s my story:

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, available on Amazon.com

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, available on Amazon.com

My book was The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.

During undergrad, I kept asking the teacher of my open-paper topic History 200 class for more ideas of where to find resources, direction, etc. on a paper I wrote about West Point, NY. He finally told me that if I didn’t read The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough that he would fail me for the class. Although it was not required reading, he thought that it was a similar book to what I was researching for the topic and essential to my learning. Reading that book changed my life. Originally written in 1968, The Johnstown Flood was McCullough’s first book. I have noticed that writers put their whole hearts into their first book depending upon the topic/nature of the book.

While learning about the people involved in this major national unnatural disaster, I felt like I was watching a movie. Although the “movie effect” normally happens when reading good books, nothing had been so clear in my mind and dug into my soul and brain as this book had. I could see the wall of brackish water rolling down through the valleys in Pennsylvania and I was scared for these people even though they already died more than a hundred years before my time. In my mind, I was there, but I was the lucky one who did not have to live through it directly.

That’s a big part of why I chose to go into Public History as part of my career aspirations. Sure, I’m in love with historical house tours, and I am an experienced family historian. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this field. But reading McCullough made me change perspectives. I related to it due to the project, the nature of the text, and its similarities in flow and demeanor to a favored ecclesiastical text. I fell in love with a tragedy that left me awed and motivated, perhaps for life.

Holiday Traditions: Family History through Traditions of Material Culture

I might just be learning something in my Public History major. The term, material culture, from what Wikipedia says,[1] “refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.” One interpretation can be that that means how the lace doily or the medal or the PUMPKIN PIE makes sense between people. My family is big on food. We are nowhere near Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving picture,
see right (don’t sue me for sharing the pic) but we do our best.

Small departure from possible other blogs, you cannot get away with writing about Thanksgiving unless you talk about family traditions. That is where material culture comes in. The positive memories of Thanksgiving keep the tradition alive. Black Friday came AFTER Thanksgiving. Despite retail America’s reluctance to admit otherwise, Thanksgiving is a legitimate American holiday and it gets celebrated whether they want to jump straight to Christmas from the 4th of July or not.

My family has changed much over the years. Growing up, the basics of the meal composed most traditional dishes sans the sweet potato or yam dish because I’m not typically a marshmallows fan but I can eat them. I do not go after them, however. My family did not stick specifically to a tradition or custom because it was there (meaning part of the national holiday culture), but adapted it to our personal needs and requirements. I think that many families are like this. A tradition means something when it becomes personal. Besides, five sides in addition to the meat entrée and dessert was plenty.

Although my personal plans include traveling this year, I can mentally go through the entire meal and prepare it with minimal paper/online recipes. Thanks, Mom. This may be silly, but I am going to prove it. (For anyone with any questions or other ways of doing this, feel free to comment below the post. I’m always looking for fun recipes.)

Basic Menu:

Turkey breast (cooked breast side down, 15 min/pound, 325 degrees. Thermometer does not pop out. Safe, juicy, yummy, oh my word-good!) DO NOT SLICE turkey until it’s rested for at least 15 minutes to a half hour. Just don’t. Thank me later.

Ocean Spray whole berry cranberry sauce (whole berry: Somehow that was better for you?) I don’t care if it’s generic. I just want some form of the sweet-tart concoction on the plate, and I don’t know that many people who want to make the stuff when it’s less-expensive to buy it. *shrugs*

Mashed potatoes with garlic powder and salt to taste (beat with a beater after mashing- makes a difference). You can add onion powder and pepper if you would like. My Mom made them with a little milk, and sometimes added parsley flakes. Simple good food.

Green bean casserole (One family member’s favorite, another despised it.) We make it simply: cream of mushroom soup, cream of celery soup (secret ingredient), milk, cut green beans. No onions needed for the top. Simply cover with aluminum foil. Because I’m the one that loved it, I got opening cans duty. After a while, it hurt your hands to make it, but I could live off this stuff.

Corn- niblets (open can, pour into bowl, nuke, add salt/butter if desired; life goes on).

Stuffing (we actually like Stove Top, although I now prefer whatever the type is that has chunks of celery and bread in it).

Some people have any number of other dishes to add. Pumpkin pie is Libby’s recipe, double the spices (triple if doubling the recipe), add a little vanilla, and make the pie crust from scratch. Honestly? Pie crust is not rocket science if you take about fifteen minutes and tastes fantastic. Just choose whatever you want and go with it.

That long explanation of my family’s food traditions for one holiday should help you to think of what your family does. If you were not commenting on traditions either mentally or to a coworker or family friend when reading the food part, I would be surprised. Food elicits passion. It helps establish communications and is a form of communication in itself. A good meal can settle wars. Other good meals start relationships. Humans bond in material culture over food. Think about this for a few moments, and then choose to write down your family’s specific holiday recipes.

It may be something small, but people writing down recipes (and especially family-modified recipes) are how a recipe survived in my family since the 1880’s and my Great (multiple times) Grandma Baker. I am not making up the name, and her chocolate cookie recipe survives, albeit in a slightly changed form. I have both the original recipe and my Mom’s modified form. If your family has a “secret” recipe, you don’t have to share it, but write it down. Although oral history is a valid, useful, and amazingly accurate way of communicating history most of the time, the numbers change over years. Make sure that your teaspoons and tablespoons or ounces and grams don’t get modified too far.

Happy Thanksgiving to you, your family, and write things down while the tradition-leaders still can make corrections. When they’re gone, they’re irreplaceable.


[1] I like Wikipedia. It may not be “scholarly” but I use it all the time because it works and helps. And the fact that anyone can review it makes it relevant.

The Blog Starts Here: Family History and Genealogy for Beginners

I am starting this blog as an effort at keeping up with my professional pursuits and personal obsession with family history and genealogy. For me, the two are used simultaneously, but also mean different things. Genealogy is just bare-bones surname lineage research with a name, date, place, and that’s about it. You can figure things out from it if you analyze, but most people don’t have the patience for it. Family history is “putting meat on the bones.” I’m not the first to use this, but I can’t remember who it was. If you find out, let me know and I can update this.

What the family history analogy means is adding the family stories and provable documentation to the genealogical bone skeletal structure. I think of metal I-beams in place for concrete pouring when building a structure. You make sure that the walls are steady, and then build your house. Most people start out with the blue prints for a house, (family stories) and they never check the engineering (Was it possible for great Great Grandma to have her picture taken on top of the first building built in Chicago?) Potentially, yes. Where was she born? Did she travel? What was her/her husband’s/father’s/any other relative’s job? Things like this help start piecing such puzzles together.

We go from questions to sources to find out information. The way to do personal family history properly is to look into family sources first and then branch out to established histories, and then directing efforts into primary sources. You find out what Great Aunt Martha knows or whomever has the family stories. Unless you’re the last member of your family alive or the only one that you know about, then you know exactly who to ask for family information. There is always that one person [or two people] who are doing it.

If it’s just you, you don’t have the benefit of the blue prints, but you do have sources. Go directly for the primary information in that case. That means, get your own vital records. Birth record, marriage record if applicable, baptismal record, military, or anything that could be an official source of identification. Make a copy of your driver’s license for your own file. If needed, passports or similar documents. Anything that the government or an ecclesiastical or military body or taxing body (or some other governing jurisdiction of which I am not aware) would use, make sure that you have a copy for yourself and your family members. If it’s just you, get a fire-proof (and hopefully that means water-proof?) safe. Consider it your personal black box. My family used to call this the “Important Papers Box” and it locked with a key. Because we lived in a safer neighborhood when I grew up, the key typically stayed with the box. This is not the best for security reasons, but we wanted to get inside the box. Our box held copies of school transcripts, one copy of the school year photos for the children of the family, birth certificates, and documents with SSNs on them just in case. Granted, this would be a very important papers box, and hence the name.

This is more of a one-family project for present day items, but start building files (portable “important papers boxes”) for your ancestors. Start from the present day and work backwards dependent upon the documentation that you already have. death certificates, funeral programs, obituaries attached to the newspaper header information (or I keep complete newspapers from dates of death as more relatives pass) , and take pictures of tombstones. As you back up in time, add other documents as described above. Make sure that you have the pivotal vital records for family members. If you’re not sure where to find such records, ask me. A later blog may include sources and similar materials to get you where you want to go. In the meantime, this should be enough to get you working. You are a part of your family’s history, too.