A New Project: From My Grandmother’s Recipe BoxPosted: November 3, 2013
I’ve spoken about my great-grandmother’s recipes here on this blog before. But I may not have elaborated on my interest in my family tree. It began in middle school when, for one cultural event or another, we had to bring a dish from our family’s heritage. At this point, we knew nothing of my maternal grandfather’s family, except that they came from Kansas. My mother is 1/4 Norwegian, through her mother, and my father’s family was exceptionally British. All in all, this Norwegian side was the most interesting to my thirteen-year-old self. I do not remember how far my mother and I researched, but I’m sure that it was pretty evident that I would refuse most ‘traditional’ Norwegian dishes, given the country’s reliance on seafood and wild game–not on the list of acceptable foods for picky-eater, pre-teen me. One way or another, we settled on Danish Rice Pudding with Raspberry Sauce. I do not remember how or why, but, most likely, we decide it was the tastiest recipe from a place that was relatively near our ancestral birthplace. I do not, in fact, have Danish in my heritage at all. A quick google search did turn up some Norwegian rice puddings, but never molded or served with raspberry sauce, as my Danish rice pudding had been. It was tasty, even if it was rather incorrect. I do remember that, in my research, I discovered that Norwegians have a general love of well-presented food. For many years in my family, while I fussed with a plate for an extra minute or two, we would claim it was “the norwegian in me”.
I revisited my heritage several years later, where, once again, things got a little skewed. For my human geography class in high school, we were supposed to research and write an immigration story. I, of course, made it harder for myself and decided I wanted to write about my real ancestors. I figured I would start with the oldest name that my mother could remember: Ella Beulah Van Dyne, my great-great grandmother who only stuck out in our memory for her more unfortunate middle name. With a little digging, I figured I would find the names of her immediate family and tell the story of how they immigrated from Norway. I was way off on this presumption. The digging led me to the font of knowledge that is Ancestry.com, and the two week free trial period. Suddenly, I was finding all sorts of information about my family–every name I entered brought new leaf clues to links in my family tree! And I discovered two very important facts: Ella Van Dyne was not Norwegian, she was mostly Dutch (if I had bother to ask my mother about the country of origin, she would have point out that the Norwegian was the other side of her family), and that the Van Dynes did not immigrate. In fact, they had been in the United States since before it was the United States–Ella’s father served as a county mayor in Michigan for several years. So, once again, I added a bit of fiction to my project. What research I could manage before the trial period ended did give me a starting point, but I mostly created the story of how Ella and her family arrived in America from my own imagination.
What did I learn from these two projects? Dodgy content aside, I realized that my past was fascinating–even if I couldn’t quite fit it into the rubric of my school projects. I soon restarted my Ancestry.com membership and away I went! I found a few amazing pictures and even better stories. I am (possibly) the 17th-great granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer. My other (confirmed) ancestor also had the first Breach of Contract suit ever filed on American soil in the 1600s. Twice-widowed Cicely Bailey Jordan, my great-times-a-lot grandmother, was visited by the Reverend Greville Pooley just days after her husband’s death. The reverend expressed his wish to marry her, and Cecily, quite pregnant with her late husband’s child, said “she would have him as willingly as any other, but would not marry until after she delivered.” The Reverend then did some fast talking, took her hand, and proceeded to recite his vows on the spot–with himself presiding! When she said nothing to consent or agree, the reverend then recited her vows for Cecily (“I Cecily take you Greville…”) and took this exchange (or lack thereof) as a wedding. Of course, after her daughter was born, Cecily instead took interest in William Ferrar, a lawyer, ironically. Nearly a year and a half later, after the case went to the courts, the Reverend withdrew his claim. My ancestors have their own wikipedia page,
y’all folks yo.
Needless to say, my mother’s side of the family has been in the Americas for ages. I did finally track down my true Norwegian side, through my great-grandmother Helen. Her parents, Brady and Mary Jo, were Norwegian. Mary Jo was one of thirteen living children of my g-g-great grandparents, Thea and Thor Hanson. Brady, an immigrant, actually adopted Mary Jo’s surname. Most of the photos I have found have been of their family. Looking over old photos was an adventure–a chance to put faces to the names I had studied. My grandfather had a very old family photo album from the 1800s (we have reason to believe that the scrap of paper with a signature on it that is sewn into the book is actually the signature of Stonewall Jackson), as well as countless other photographs. Suddenly, I knew these people’s stories, or at least their families. It was absolutely amazing. I have carefully documenting, saved, and copied these photos. Now, I want to explore another aspect of Helen. And of her daughter, my grandmother, Ginny. And of my other great-grandmother, Nelia. I want to learn about them by making their recipes. Helen kept a recipe box, that my grandma Ginny then contributed to–and by contributed to, I mean added in recipes from her friends and relatives and her sister (my great-aunt) Mimi. They both were family legends in the kitchen–Mimi for her skill and Ginny for her lack thereof. But, good cook or bad cook; created recipe, borrowed recipe, or copied recipe; I have a worn black box that is full of magazine clippings and recipe cards. And I want to cook out of it.
Last time I was home, I chose my first batch of recipes. Some are desserts, some are not. Some are straight forward (Filled Cookies!) and some are not (Bertha? Country Captain? Real recipes). I will hopefully make my way through all of them. I will not make my way through the whole box, because at least fifty percent of the recipes are truly 1950’s gems that either combine Jell-O with all the wrong ingredients or are too liberal with mayonnaise (often innocuously referred to as ‘salad dressing’).
But the recipes that are still palatable have a chance of being tested–and, of course, will be created free of gluten. Some recipes were pointed out by my mother, who remembered my grandmother making them. Others, like “Bertha”, were simply too intriguing to resist. This is not a project that I plan to power through before a set deadline. I want to take my time, and I am certain that I will have other dishes that will spark my interest and interrupt this project. But I do want to document and share it here, as I learn another aspect of the people who have (literally) made me who I am today.