A guest post by Gena Philibert-Ortega, author of 'From the Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes'
She looked like a little old lady. But then again everyone looks old when you’re a kid. For the young, anyone over about 25 years of age is bordering on death.
Even if she looked like an old lady to me, she was my little old lady. She was my great-grandmother. She was short, white haired, with a kindly smile and a wink when we were going to do something that the more serious adults may not like. And we did do things the adults in the family wouldn’t have approved of. Like walk a mile down a busy street with no sidewalks to a store for some candy. My great-grandmother was a big part of my life until her death in the year following my high school graduation. Up to that point she was a travel companion joining us on trips out of state to visit family and the occasional excursion to a theme park.
Looking back, I realize now that she was my connection to the more distant past, she was my living family history. Born in the early 1900s she had known family members born closer to the time of the American Civil War. She had known one of our immigrant ancestors and had lived through two World Wars. For those who knew her and are still alive today, she is known for one thing, her food. And while she wasn’t doing a lot of cooking during the time that I can remember, she did cook and bake during the holidays.
In my family, Christmas meant fudge, lots of chocolate fudge. Chocolate, butter, sugar, marshmallows, and nuts. Fudge is one of those treats that you know is special, after all it’s served in small bites. And if you’re lucky you might get two of those sweet, soft, chocolaty bites but never more without disapproving looks on the adult faces surrounding you.
That one small luscious bite came only at Christmas. That was the one time a year when the tin lined with wax paper and rows of brown milk chocolate colored goodness were brought out.
My great-grandmother’s life was undeniably entwined in food. Not only was she chief pie and fudge chef during the holidays but she was also a cook in numerous restaurants throughout her adult life, well into her 70s. That tradition of cooking she passed down to her son and her grandchildren. Her biography is one ensconced in food. But she’s not alone.
The call for Christmas memories and creating or remembering them is prevalent this time of the year. And while you may not know how previous generations celebrated the holidays you may know them by their food. Those are the traditions that get passed down and enjoyed each year. Aunt Sara’s fruit cake, mom’s roast, and even that chocolate fudge, all are remembrances of the holidays. The women who made these meals might be gone but their legacy remains. My children, born over ten years after my great-grandmother died, know her. Not by name, but by the taste of the fudge from her recipe made by her grandson.
Our female ancestors are the ones who tend to show up as “unknown” on documents, most famously as the unknown mothers of the deceased on death certificates. But they did leave behind a trail and a portion of that that trail is food. Those food traditions may be handed down orally from mother to daughter or home sources found clipped and glued together in a recipe scrapbook, recipe card holder, or a community cookbook. Women are documented in the activities they took part in; activities that are not always found on a census record.
People may remember the holidays by a particular smell or a taste. Those smells and tastes are chapters in the lives of women, written with food. Their complete biographies waiting to be written by those whose memories of them are found in a family’s food history.
What are your holiday food traditions? What foods did the women in your family prepare? What food history/family history are you keeping alive?