Follow Friday: The Old Foodie

You might have noticed that I have a weakness for old recipes — those underestimated windows into the past.

Back when I was a newspaper/foodie sort of person, one of my favorite jobs was reading over the recipe-query column — the more vintage the query, the better. I just loved readers who wanted to know how to make an icebox cake. If it were in my power, I’d have given them a year’s free subscription simply for using the word “icebox.”

The Old Foodie understands this love of vintage recipes, and does a wonderful job of blending fascinating historical material with a sharp eye for cultural context. For instance, The Foodie has most recently written a three-part series on “Emergency Food,” including a great post on suggestions given to British cooks in 1939 for how to stock and stretch their wartime larders.

Also, as a person of Irish descent I have to pay tribute to someone who includes a special section on “Historic Potato Recipes.”

If you have an old family recipe you’re trying to make sense of, or if  you’re just interested in trying to imagine how your great-great-great-grandparents might have shopped for and cooked their food, this site is the perfect read.


Treasure Chest Thursday: Voices from the Past

A cassette tape isn’t the most elegant heirloom — not in the same league as an Art Deco brooch, for sure.

Still, among the most precious items in my family history treasure chest are two audio tapes. Made more than two decades apart with two different voices, they don’t have a lot in common. Except that each is an irreplaceable record of a voice from the past.

The first tape was probably made sometime in the 1970s and features singing by my father, who died in 1983. It’s a mix of Irish-tenor classics, including “Danny Boy.” Dad had a great voice, and I’m sure he had a blast performing for posterity. About ten years after my father died, it was given by a dental-school classmate of his to one of my cousins, who passed it on to us, and copies were made for all seven of my dad’s children.

For ten years after that, I never listened to it. I would start to play it, then stop. I can’t tell you why. After all, one of the saddest moments in grieving a loved one is the point at which you realize you no longer remember exactly how their voice sounded — it’s like losing them all over again. And here I was with my father’s voice on tape, not able to push the Play button. Maybe I was afraid that somehow his voice wouldn’t sound as wonderful as I remembered.

Anyway, on to the second tape. This one is of my father-in-law; it was made by my husband a few years before his father died, of a conversation they had together about my father-in-law’s boyhood. This tape became very important even before my father-in-law actually passed, because not long after it was made, he suffered a stroke that affected his speech — not 100 percent, but enough so that detailed conversations were difficult. I recently rediscovered the tape when I found it in a box of odds and ends  my kids had tossed together and decided to claim for their own. It is now rescued and marked: Do Not Touch On Pain of Death.

You may be wondering whether I ever did listen to Tape No. 1. The answer is yes — after my father-in-law died, and my mother-in-law asked me if I would sing “Danny Boy” at his memorial service.

Of course I thought about the tape. I also thought about how my dad owned “Danny Boy” in our family, and what he’d think about me singing it — he was particular about getting it right. And I thought that probably now was the time to listen to the tape, to get a couple of pointers from the master so I could do my best for my mother-in-law.

So yes, I finally listened to the tape. And my dad sounded just as good as I remembered. He still owns “Danny Boy.” Although I must say, my version isn’t too shabby, either.


Genealogy pitfall: When good certificates go wrong

My great-uncle Leo's death certificate (1901).

As a genealogy enthusiast I forget not everyone hears the words “death certificate” with excitement. And truly, some death certificates are always hard to read, like this one for my grandfather’s brother Leo Haigney, who died a little ways past his third birthday, in 1901.

Leo died from tubercular meningitis; there wasn’t much hope in pre-antibiotic days. The doctor was called on February 15; Leo died a week later, on the morning of the 22nd. Convulsions were listed as the secondary cause of death. I can’t imagine what it must have been like as a parent to watch a death struggle like that. More accurately, I could if I really tried, but as a mother, I just don’t want to go there.

Instead,  I will imagine what it might have been like for my great-grandfather Joseph, Leo’s father, giving the information for the death certificate. This is not a task you’d do in a calm state of mind. My parents died twenty-five years apart, but the extreme fog on my brain was exactly the same each time, and it didn’t really lift until about a month after the funerals.

So, I’m not terribly surprised at what transpired on Leo’s certificate:

Father: Joseph Haigney, born U.S.

[Correct, given information from other sources.]

Mother: Mary Haigney, born Ireland.

[Incorrect, according to other sources. Leo’s mother was the former Catherine Connors, born in New York State.]

Why is “Mary Haigney” on Leo’s death certificate? Well, this information fits Joseph’s mother, whose name was Mary and who indeed was born in Ireland, according to census records. What seems likely  is that upon being asked the question, “Mother’s name?” a grieving father responded with his own mother’s name, not the name of the deceased child’s mother.

This little story shows why death certificates, though valuable, must be treated with a lot of caution.

Genealogical material can be divided into two important categories: original and derivative. Original material is based on firsthand knowledge of the people and events being described.  Derivative is everything else. Death certificates can fall into either category. For example, a deceased’s widow can’t automatically be expected to have firsthand knowledge of her inlaws’ birthplaces. But she might, if everyone grew up together in the same town.

So we find ourselves asking, who was the informant, and how likely were they to be right about the information they were asked to supply?

And we also have to factor in the state-of-mind problem. Does the information make sense given what we know from other sources? Even an informant we could expect to be right might get it wrong, as my great-grandfather did.

Here is a frank and informative discussion on how grief and disorientation can affect one’s ability to provide accurate information for death records. And here is another discussion about how to evaluate what’s on a death certificate.


Link edition: April 5, 2010

OMG Department: Talk about an unsettling post title: I Destroyed My Genealogy Database Tonight. And the author is Dick Eastman! The Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter Guy! Full of trepidation, I clicked through. Yes, Mr. Eastman did indeed fry his database. But being Mr. Eastman, he has a multilayered backup setup that had him completely covered, and besides, this wasn’t even his primary computer. You can never read too many happy-ending backup stories. Excuse me while I go off to make a backup now.

Legend or Family Fact?: Another eye-catching title is “Did Great-Grandpa Ride With an Outlaw Gang?” Here, a Texas newspaper genealogy columnist  gives a succinct primer on Dealing With Family Legends 101. Good basic tips on where to start in the effort to untangle fact from fiction. And may I say how cool is that, having a genealogy column in a local paper.

Open-Source, Genealogy-Style: An often-asked question by genealogy beginners is “What software program should I use?” For those interested in an alternative to the Family Tree Makers and Reunions of the world, check out this article on Gramps, an open-source application that runs on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. Interesting.

Trains of Thought: Railroads? Genealogy? How about railroads AND genealogy? Somehow I think there will be takers. If you are in northern New Jersey and you think this is your niche, check out the Railroads and Roundtable session this Saturday, April 10, sponsored by the Hudson County Genealogical Society. The morning-long agenda features a presentation on “The Railroad Wars of Hudson County,” followed by “Who Do You Think You’re Looking For?”, a roundtable discussion in which attendees are free to bring up any genealogy questions, answers, tips or strategies they’d like to share.

Here’s to the week ahead — onward and upward.


Good Friday: Crucifixus / Lotti

Here is something I’ll be singing at a couple of services this weekend: the sublime 8-part setting of “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti.  This version by the Dordt College Concert Choir of Sioux Center, Iowa, is pretty nice:

Have a nice, safe day.


Follow Friday: The Brooklyn Information Page

Are you researching ancestors in Brooklyn, NY? You must have visited The Brooklyn Information Page. If not, click on the link right now. I will wait.

And wait. And wait.

Oh, just come back tomorrow, already. This Brooklyn-centric genealogy page is crammed with stuff, and if you’re a first-time visitor, you’ll probably root around in it for hours, just as I did when I first discovered it — gosh, can it be eleven years ago now? Hard to believe.

The Brooklyn Page was created in 1997 by Nancy Lutz, and continues to be a font of information on all things Brooklyn. It is also a gateway to the NYBrooklyn-L email list, which I might as well warn you will flood torrents of information into your email box, but is always interesting as all get-out. I get it in digest form. I have mostly lurked there, and have learned all sorts of things from the unfailingly patient regulars.  There is no such thing as a dumb question there, trust me. To get an idea, you can browse the archives here.

Back to the Brooklyn Page itself: Brooklyn is a pretty complicated topic. To say your ancestors “came from Brooklyn” may be of  limited usefulness, depending upon the time frame. The entity called “Brooklyn” was once a whole bunch of separate settlements, each with its own rich history. (This helps to explain the fierce neighborhood partisanship  that reigns in Brooklyn to this day.) Here you can find information on old Brooklyn town names, farmlands and street names, so important in narrowing the search for an elusive relative. You can also find information on which churches were located where — also very important in a place where Roman Catholics tend to use parish names as geographic signposts.

One of the nicest things on The Brooklyn Page is Paper Trails, where Nancy has established a home for something everyone has sooner or later — a vital record that doesn’t fit anywhere in the lines they’re researching. On Paper Trails, these orphan records are available for browsing, perhaps to be discovered by someone else who can make use of them.

There are also lots and lots of transcriptions: obituaries, police-blotter stories and directory pages, to name just some.

The Brooklyn Page is searchable, which is how I discovered the identity of my great-great-uncle William Haigney’s wife, Sarah, as well as some of Sarah’s large Dowd clan from Brooklyn. It was also the place where I first discovered the maiden name of my great-uncle Joseph’s wife, Catherine Reilly Haigney.

Consider this a very belated valentine to Nancy and all the Brooklyn list regulars, whose insights, humor and wisdom continue to make my day every day.


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