Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Writing History

I had an interesting experience yesterday. I spoke with two different women about the Danish food traditions of their grandmothers. One said, "I have a dozen or so recipes. I've never made any of them, but I'd like to help you out." The other said, "I have a whole bunch of recipes and they are mine and I'm not sharing them and I won't even talk to you about them." Guess which food tradition will die first?

I've been putting considerable thought towards the idea of this new book I mentioned previously, about multi-generational Scandinavian food. The more I've thought about it, the more it seems that documentation or lack thereof might be one of the sticky wickets in the project. I've made a few contacts so far (thanks to those who responded here), and it appears that one reason why things die off is that no one makes a record, or the keepers of the record refuse to share it, or the record is insufficient. To that end I thought I would write a post about how to record your family history.

It is easy enough to find a recipe from your mother, or possibly even from your grandmother. Most cooks know of a community recipe book that holds a recipe from their grandmother. Perhaps your grandmother's name is even called out in that recipe book, directly attached to the recipe. Isn't that nice?

Now imagine your grandmother's personal recipe book. It has lots of hand-written recipes, and she didn't sign her name to them because they are obviously hers. But if that recipe book just showed up in someone else's kitchen, they wouldn't know that all that juicy stuff came from Grandma. There's the trouble. Her record would be lost, not because it ceased to exist, but because she ceased to exist.

So if ever you take to writing down your history, the thing that would help future readers of your history would be for you to identify where you got the information, and a little unbiased context about your sources. Usually this comes in the following form:

Author's Name. Title of book or article. Publisher's name and/or where this book could be tracked down if it is privately held.

Here's an example:

Wilhemina Ericksen Morrison. "Finnan Haddie." Manuscript recipe card written by Grandma Morrison, in my possession, Mount Pleasant, Utah.

So often I stumble into what is potentially a great little nugget of history, but it lacks these things. That robs potential history of context. Context is what creates meaning for historians. So for example, I might find what appears to be a historical recipe, written on a scrap of yellowed, tattered paper, perhaps even written with a quill dipped in ink. But there's no author's name, and no date or place, so we don't know where it came from or who it represents. Somebody was robbed of identity.

Even worse, suppose the recipe above were stripped of its clues. Instead of written with a quill on yellowed paper (which would tell us it is rather old), what if someone had transcribed that recipe into their own computer database of recipes, without any identifying clues. Now we really have no clue what it represents, or who.

So remember friends, anytime you compile history, please make note of the original sources. It could be as simple as saying "Josephine Hanks told me this story herself on July 19, 2012." Or... "This came from Irene Cruikshank Potter's recipe file. Irene was the granddaughter of English immigrants who came to Utah in 1872. She was born in Brigham City in 1880." With a few clues, anybody who read your history would have a starting point to follow up with their own research.

And most of all, don't be stingy with your research. The only way foodways traditions stay alive and relevant is if they are shared. Share your food traditions to keep them alive. Traditions of any sort go dead when people stop doing them and stop talking about them. If you're not writing it down, then you better be performing the traditions with your young children, or they will disappear.

Stepping off my soapbox now...


Sherm said...

My mother and I and my children (and a raft of cousins) all grew up eating "North Wind." This is simply pie crust, rolled flat, scored, sprinkled with sugar, and baked. The name goes back to my grandmother and a poem she read. Someone was smart enough to find the poem so wew can more fully appreciate her legacy when eating this treat.

The Moon's the North Wind's Cooky

The Moon's the North Wind's cooky.
He bites it, day by day,
Until there's but a rim of scraps
That crumble all away.

The South Wind is a baker.
He kneads clouds in his den,
And bakes a crisp new moon that . . . greedy
North . . . Wind . . . eats . . . again!
by Vachel Lindsay

Brock said...

What a great poem, Sherm. Love it!

That North Wind cookie you mention is very Scandinavian. In Danish they're called kringler. Most often they're plain like you describe, but for Christmas and special times they were cut in ribbons and formed into a figure 8 shape.

Thanks for sharing!

Sioux said...

I'm interested in finding a recipe for something my Grandma made called 'Danish Sweetsoup'. It actually was more of a dessert with prunes, raisins, cinnamon & cloves, etc. Would any of your readers have access to this?

BTW - LOVE reading your blog, and learning more about things of the past.

Brock said...

Sioux, I have that recipe I believe. Can you email me (link at bottom of page) and I'll hook you up?

Lane said...


Do you remember that Grandma Cheney made North Wind for us? as I recall, she would cut the pie crust dough with a cookie cutter, or form it into mini pie pans, sans filling. Of course, she didn't call it North Wind. I remember begin surprised at the time that she would ever make anything sweet, which, of course, was not true at all (Exhibit A: the carrot cookies she would mail to me in NJ during college. They were coveted by my firends).

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