Stirring Up History; Traditional Recipes Offer Connection to Ancestors

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Stirring Up History; Traditional Recipes Offer Connection to Ancestors


Byline: Karen Goldberg Goff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

If it is the holiday season, then it is time to make baklava, Eva Poulos says. Mrs. Poulos, who lives in Potomac, is carrying on a tradition she learned more than half-century ago from her mother, Sousannah Fanorakis. Mrs. Fanorakis, who died 10 years ago at age 92, used to make the sweet, nutty dessert for the family at the holidays - as well as some 80 dozen for her annual church festival.

Mrs. Poulos learned her mother's technique by watching and listening. She would bring in trays of baklava for office parties during the 35 years she worked as an administrative assistant at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. She later became a cooking teacher (specializing in Greek food, of course) and taught others to work the phyllo dough.

"I feel connected to my Greek culture by cooking the food," Mrs. Poulos says. "I was always interested in cooking, and my mom, who was born in Greece, was a really good cook. Making this food really takes me back. My mom was specific about certain things."

Family recipes are as distinctive as families themselves. There may be 50 ways to make a Christmas cookie, for instance, but the way your family made it is the taste-and-smell memory that takes you back.

Recipes represent a time, place and culture, says Anne L. Bower, associate professor of English at Ohio State University's Marion campus.

Ms. Bower studies community cookbooks, which essentially are volumes full of family recipes. Those collections communicate what was going on in the lives of our predecessors, she says.

"You begin to see patterns of how people used language," she says. "You can read between the lines and you get a partial autobiography of what the person valued."

In fact, many genealogy enthusiasts use family and community cookbooks to better understand their ancestors' lives. Cyndi's List, a popular nonprofit genealogy Web site, includes a large section (at www.cyndislist.com/recipes.htm) on recipes and family traditions. Visitors can find links to recipes as varied as a Union soldier's coffee substitute made with acorns and a mother's 1950s beef stroganoff.

Laura Schenone, author of the book "A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances," says family recipes give us a window "into something larger than ourselves."

"Food and recipes give us a picture of our ancestors," she said in a telephone interview from her home in New Jersey. "Food is largely about memory. Food and storytelling go together. We put food into our bodies, but there is a more profound connection."

Ms. Schenone's next book is about her search for her Italian grandmother's ravioli recipe.

"Ravioli was an important food at Christmas and an important food in general," she says. "The recipe was lost. I've been calling up distant relatives and asking them to teach me."

Plum cake to cookbooks

Before Joan Nathan was a well-known cookbook author, she was a child in her mother's kitchen.

She says one of her earliest memories was having plum cake on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year."We would put the plums in one by one," says Ms. Nathan, of the District. "We kids all were able to put plums in the cake and make it look pretty."

The plum cake, along with myriad other dishes, eventually found a place in Ms. Nathan's kitchen.

"The only way to make traditions is to recreate old recipes," she says. "I'm 61 now, but I still want my mom's old recipes. I think on holidays it is important to bring out the recipes that are tried and true. As many different latkes (potato pancakes) as I'll make on Hanukkah, my children want plain latkes."

Making the old favorites often means throwing out today's health-conscious ideas. Grandma most likely cooked with whole milk, cream, lard and butter. To remember them in the right way, one might as well eat like them - once in a while. …

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