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- by Laura, January 19, 2010
You meet some people who are lucky. They are born to stable families that remain intact. Their parents live long healthy lives. Mom and grandma were wonderful cooks. There was always enough to eat, as well as lots of love and attention. They get handed down great family recipes, and for the rest of their lives food brings beautiful memories and associations.
This is very nice. And you know, sometimes it even really happens.
But most people are not so lucky. And the past is rarely so good.
Grandparents die young. Lots of mothers don’t care at all about cooking. And in the U.S.--because we are such a mobile fast moving culture--it is easy to loose all the threads of your personal history with one or two generations. Lots of people learn to cook as adults.
And so when people come to me and ask how they can find family recipes that are lost forever because someone died or they had no close relatives who were cooks, I say there is no reason to give up. Everyone has some kind of culinary heritage--even if it is one of hunger or great simplicity. You may not get the exact thing your grandmother made. But so what. You can come close.
I have lots of tips--from calling extraneous relatives, to going to the place your family came from. But one of them is to go to old cookbooks of the era that interests you. This is increasingly possible with online cookbook collections.
Certainly one of the best online sources for early American cookbooks food history is the Feeding America Project that was started at the Michigan State University’s Library and Museum, led by the wonderful Jan Longone. On Feeding America, you’ll find 75 important American cookbooks available page by page online. This particular collection is better than most because you can search by recipe. So for example, if you’re looking for sweet potato pie, you’ll find 8 recipes that appeared from 1869 to the beginning of the twentieth century. These cookbooks range from poor to wealthy authors. Go try it. Click “Search the Collection.” Have fun.