Ancestral Dish: The lost salads of summer

My dad knew his way around a kitchen, but he did not cook every day. He preferred to be known for a selection of specialties, a niche he could comfortably occupy while my mom did the day-in, day-out job of cooking for the nine of us.

The dishes for which Dad was famous included:

A hearty version of Irish stew;

A snappy, spicy Manhattan clam chowder; 

Liver and onions, for which I can’t supply a positive adjective, sorry.

And when summertime rolled around, Dad was famous for his potato and macaroni salads.

Dad never made just a little salad. He always filled at least one, preferably two, cafeteria-style stainless-steel trays, which my parents happened to have on hand, along with a commercial deli-style slicing machine. We were not in the deli business; we simply had this stuff. As a kid, I assumed everybody did.

When Dad cooked, he usually took over the kitchen for the day, regarding the arrival of kids wanting lunch as an act of aggression, or at least an unreasonable intrusion. If you hung around, you might find yourself peeling potatoes. (“KP”, he called it.) Dad’s salads had no fancy secret ingredients. He thought that putting relish in macaroni salad was an abomination and that chopped hard-boiled eggs were overkill.

Still, decades after my dad died, I will occasionally hear wistful comments about “those wonderful salads your father used to make.” And they were wonderful — reserved for special occasions like Fourth of July barbecues or First Communion parties. Over the years I have tried to replicate them, without success. The true secret was in the dressing, I have come to believe, and Dad made his dressing in completely unscientific fashion, eyeballing quantities and shaking everything up in an empty Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar. He’d have driven a recipe editor crazy, and having been one myself, I ought to know.

Sometimes when you give up trying on a dish, you find it anyway, or at least, you find its essence. Recently I hosted a First Communion buffet lunch at my house for 40 people. In between bouts of questioning my sanity, I found a large-scale recipe for pasta salad. It is extremely different from Dad’s, with corkscrew noodles and steamed broccoli florets and a bunch of other things he’d disdain. And yet — something about it reminded me of his macaroni salad. Maybe it was the dressing.

See what you think on the jump.

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Chart Fun: Migration Patterns

Via The New York Times, here’s nifty interactive data to play with: a look at migration patterns within the United States since 1900.

State by state, this graphic offers a snapshot of where its inhabitants have moved (or how many of them have stayed put) by percentages over the years. You can either scroll down to read through the states alphabetically, or select a state at the top of the page to jump wherever you want.

Deftly done — and for USians, it’s interesting to check against what we know about our own ancestors’ wanderings. (And thanks to Mr. Archaeologist for the tip!)


Grave Sleuthing: Legwork Before Footwork

Graves upon graves, gaps upon gaps: another day in a big cemetery.

Graves upon graves, gaps upon gaps: another day in a big cemetery.

Finding a single plot in the sea of burials that is your typical big-city cemetery can daunt the most intrepid urban family historian. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a marker once you get there.

Still, if you broaden a cemetery search beyond that one name and one location – if you give it the same kind of context that enriches other branches of genealogical research – your chances of success broaden as well.

Recently when I signed up for a tour of Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City, I undertook a search for the gravesite of a friend’s grandparents, with unexpected but still satisfying results. Here’s the step-by-step:

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Resource Spotlight: Old German Occupations

Been a while since I did one of these — and this sure came in handy the other day:

List of Old German Professions

Befuddled by someone’s Beruf? This is a collection of  dozens of archaic German words describing what people did for a living. For me, it cleared up the designation “Komiss” on a manifest. This term (and similar ones such as Kommerziant) were used to describe sales clerks and the like.

I found it easiest to use when I did a text search on the term I was wondering about. Lots and lots of words here — maybe you’ll find one of them useful.

We have Milan Tyler-Pohontsch at European Roots to thank for this fascinating list.

 

 

 


Lost Lambs

It’s tough to explain the satisfactions of genealogy to nonparticipants. And I completely understand their bewilderment. Why does anyone want to traipse around cemeteries cooing over tombstones? What exactly is so much fun about libraries?

But there’s one thing that everybody seems to get, even the most bored and impatient of listeners:

It’s really, really nice to find the lost babies.

That’s what I call those children who lived and died between census years, the ones who exist perhaps as a question mark on an old family data sheet, or — in the case of my great-great aunt Rose (Connors) Brant — as a statistical squiggle on the census returns.

Rose (1860-1914) had six children, six living, when she and her family were counted in the U.S. federal census in Jersey City in 1900. When 1910 rolled around, she was the mother of eight children, seven living, her youngest child being born in about 1905. On my genealogy program, Rose’s tally was four pink circles for the girls, three for the boys, and one Unknown, which, in Reunion anyway, is a white space.

Those white Unknown spaces sadden me to no end, and the mysteries they contain can stay unresolved for years, sometimes for always. Happily, this particular mystery occurred when civil registration for vitals was well under way in New Jersey.

At the state archives in Trenton, births for earlier years are filed by certificate number.To find one, you need to examine an index reel that is arranged by year and parents’ surnames. Since Rose’s two youngest surviving children were born in 1900 and 1905, that meant she could have had a child in between — or she could have had a child after 1905, but before 1910. I decided to try that earlier time frame first, seeing as Rose was already nearing age 40 in 1900.

And very soon I found her missing child — a little boy, born just before Christmas 1902, and dead of meningitis by September 1903. I was saddened at how brief his life was. But it still felt good to type a name over that “Unknown,” and convert the white tag to blue. It’s strange to think how a life can be reduced to a set of numbers scrawled on a census tally sheet — and satisfying when you can be the person who puts a name where there was once just a statistic.


Hallowed Ground in Jersey City

I never pass a cemetery without a second look, or a third, or even pulling over to take a fourth.

So when a chance came to tour two landmark Catholic cemeteries in Jersey City, I put on my sturdiest, ugliest walking shoes and met up on a lovely June Saturday morning with other members of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. On the agenda: an in-depth look at St. Peter’s Cemetery, on Tonnelle Avenue, and sprawling, gorgeous Holy Name on West Side Avenue, final home to many prominent (and in some cases infamous) figures from Jersey City’s past.

We carpooled to St. Peter’s, a good thing because St. Peter’s has to be one of the trickiest cemeteries to access anywhere. This might sound cheeky to those who must hack their way to ancestors in overgrown rural burying grounds, but there are other hazards in life besides brambles, and Tonnelle Avenue (a k a U.S. Highways 1 and 9) is one of them.

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Throwback Thursday: Shoes Edition

Feet on the front steps, circa 1970.

Feet on the front steps, circa 1970.

 

Those are my feet on the left, in the beat-up loafers. I was very hard on shoes, my mother said. That was also the opinion of Manny, the guy who measured us at Martin’s Shoe Store in Plainfield, N.J. He and my mother would mourn the state of my current shoe, and shake their heads, and sigh.

“She’s really hard on shoes, isn’t she?” Manny would say.

“Let’s hope this pair lasts,” my mother would say.

In my defense, I would like to draw your attention to that ripped sole of the Keds sneakers on the right, which belonged to one of my younger sisters, proof that I was not the only kid who was hard on her shoes.

The shoes in the center belong to a littler kid who went easier on them, because he didn’t play as hard as we did. However, being a little kid, he was about to commit the equally heinous sin of Growing Like You Wouldn’t Believe, necessitating a pair of new shoes in an equally indecent amount of time.

Shoe shopping was a definite event back then, partly because shoe stores were fuller-service destinations, as opposed to today, when the only stores that make a big deal of fussing over you are the ones catering to marathoners or people with really bad bunions.

But the other reason was that when seven kids all needed shoes at the same time, it meant major shopping expeditions. These took place in August, when we bought school shoes, and late spring, when we bought summer play shoes. Easter shoes were also important, but because we wore dress shoes so infrequently, we handed them down a lot. This might cause responsible parents to clutch their throats in horror today, but my mother would have thought it irresponsible to waste a set of patent-leather Mary Janes that had only been to Mass once or twice. So every Easter, we’d root around the closets and line everyone up to see which dress shoes fitted whom.

Shoe shopping was always a mixed experience for me. I loved the look, smell and feel of new shoes, but I hated being called to account for the damage I wreaked on them. “You really banged these up, kid,” Manny would say, as Mom nodded in sad agreement.

How did I do it? I was never sure. As far as I knew I was just running and walking in them, not using them to pound fence posts. Every year, I would vow that my shoes would stay smooth and whole until they no longer fit. But every year, I wore out my shoes before I outgrew them. The pleasure of new shoes was always shadowed by my awareness of their fleeting glory.

I never did turn into a person who collects shoes. I still tend to buy a pair I really like and wear it into shreds, despite good-intentioned vows to buy that one great pair in several colors and rotate them. Maybe all that early training in shoe shopping has conditioned me to stick with the tried-and-true, and await its inevitable decline.

Or maybe I’m just really hard on shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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