In family-history discussions we often talk about the power beloved family recipes can exert in bringing warm, vivid memories to life.
Not long ago, I got an unexpected reminder that bad food memories also pack a punch. One of my favorite non-genealogy reads is David Lebovitz’s beguiling blog about cooking, eating and living in Paris. My epiphany there came in the comments section of a recent post on French charcuterie.
As you might imagine, one reader’s ick is another’s addiction, especially when it comes to charcuterie. So the comments inevitably turned to the question of foods people absolutely Will Not Eat, and why entire cultures sometimes put certain foods on the Will Not Eat List.
For instance, David speculated that the reason rabbits remain off-limits to many people might be that “perhaps they are associated with hard times.”
One of his readers from the U.S. chimed in to agree, saying he had once encountered an elderly neighbor who wouldn’t touch rabbit for very specific, personal reasons. For years during the Depression, this woman’s enterprising mother raised rabbits in backyard hutches, bartering them for goods and services and, of course, putting them in the stewpot nearly every day.
My mother, on the other hand, hated lentils. Lentil soup was on the menu every single Friday night of every year she spent growing up in her parents’ strictly Catholic home, in the days when all Fridays were meatless.
And my mother-in-law cannot stand spaghetti. This is because her Great Depression was spent in a small farming community in South Dakota, where spaghetti was the only reliable entrée for weeks on end, during a particularly desperate stretch. So desperate did this stretch get, that there was actually a food drop from an airplane bearing government-surplus supplies. My mother-in-law and all the other children scrambled out to the field, excited beyond belief at what might be there.
“And what do you think they dropped?” she asked. “Spaghetti!”
The bitterness in her voice was still sharp after more than six decades.
Or consider the case of a gentleman from Rostock, Germany who finally decided to open and taste a 64-year-old can of lard he’d been saving “for emergencies” ever since he acquired it in an aid package in the devastation of postwar Germany. (The verdict? “Gritty and tasteless,” but edible.)
Bad eats can be a potent catalyst for memories, just like good eats. And the stories are just as absorbing.
“Every person has a story and you just have to ask.”
— Eleven-year-old Eli Boardman of Boulder, Co., editor/publisher of his own community newspaper, the Boardman Camera, 200 editions old and still going strong. (As reported by Jim Romenesko.)
Words of wisdom for genealogists, as well as youthful journalists!
Police in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., located the long-lost kin of reclusive twin sisters who were found dead in their home late last month. Patricia and Joan Miller, 73, had been entertainers in their youth and were retired from clerical jobs. They had little contact with their neighbors or anyone else, as far as anyone could tell. Reports Cristina Silva of the Associated Press:
With little information about the twins’ personal lives to work from, investigators issued a public plea this week asking for help in notifying the sisters’ next of kin.
The response was overwhelming. Emails and phone calls poured in and with the help of amateur genealogists who read media accounts of the sisters’ deaths, investigators tracked down a first cousin and two second cousins late Wednesday.
[Detective Matt] Harwood said the sisters deserved to have their family know about their death, and he was pleased to complete that mission with help from “people from across the country, just your Average Joe wanting to try their hand on genealogy,” he said.
It turned up last week on a census hunt related to my frustrating, elusive Connors line in Watervliet (maybe) N.Y. I kept squinting at the handwriting, but really all that a reasonable person could make out would be “corn labor”, with “coven labor” a distant second and honestly, I don’t really want to pursue a relationship with someone who does coven labor. Then I got distracted by some other Irish-in-New York stuff (the subject of another post in the works).
Well! In one of those cosmic convergences, a fellow member of the Troy (N.Y.) Irish Genealogy Society mailing list also had a corn laborer in his files, and being more sensible than me, posted a question about it. As is often the case on this great list, there were informative replies. It is possible, write listers Rebecca and Kathleen, that this labor was related to broom corn crops, which were harvested to provide materials for brush factories, some of which existed in the Capital District area.
To get an idea of broom corn and what’s involved (translation: very hard work), check out this broom corn blog post, complete with pictures. It is by Marieanne Coursen, intrepid staffer at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. She tells us that broom corn was an important mid-19th-century crop in New York State.
They raise their own crop of broom corn at the museum, and Ms. Coursen takes you through the whole process of growing, harvesting and processing it in an authentically 19th-century way. She even cut the brushes with a knife, as would have been done back then, keeping herself “very aware of the location of my body parts in relation to the swing of the knife.” (This is the sort of thing that dampens my enthusiasm for being a living history docent.)
Apparently there is a broom shop in the museum where you can see the product of these labors. Another fine reason to visit Cooperstown, even if you are not a baseball fan.