The great thing about family genealogy is we can rediscover our ancestors, lost to time. This is because that as far back as there were written records, there’s a paper trail we can sleuth to find them. There’s a plethora of data in the census, birth records, church records, newspapers and cemeteries.
The same is not as true for food anthropology or as I like to call it, food etymology, the origin of our recipes and foodways. It’s the social history behind why we eat what we eat. Unfortunately for us, when a recipe is gone, it’s gone. There’s not an International Bureau of Historic Recipes, but there should be. It’s tragic that we don’t ask for the recipes of our grandparents when they’re around us or observe them cooking to remember how they made that awesome baking powder biscuit strawberry shortcake. Even when I interviewed the son of the founder of Empress Chili – he said he wished he had asked his dad who the customer was who first asked for cheddar cheese on their coney and on top of their chili!
So us cooky food anthropologists search for clues in current dishes and look for commonality with other dishes. We scour histories that mention anything about cuisine and foodways, but those are hard to come by. This Food Dude thinks that every city should include in their histories the cuisine of their city’s ancestors.
That’s why what I call “Church Lady Cookbooks” are so fantastic. If you look hard enough they can offer clues of the evolution of food and even family history. I recently purchased online, the “Recipes and Remembrances of High Hill” created by the St. Anne’s Ladies Society of St. Mary’s Church of High Hill Texas, preparing for my food exploration trip there.
This happened to be a gold mine of Czech-German food history! Not only did this book have recipes passed on through five or more generations from the old country – in this case, Moravia in then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Czech republic – it had old photos and remembrances of how the food was offered and celebrated – woohoo – a food anthropologist’s Valhalla!
It had recipes for great Czech-German recipes like kolaches, sauerkraut cake and salad, and even sausage and beer! It told of the all day weddings of the past century, that started with an 8 AM mass on Monday or Tuesday, in October or November. Then, after a trip to the photographer, the party landed at the Bride’s family’s house for a breakfast of kolaches, strudel, bacon and eggs, since as Catholics, they had to fast before communion. Later guests ate a large dinner outside under large trees, of sausage, noodle soup, fried chicken, sauerkraut and all sorts of desserts.
The book also mentioned ‘house dances’ – parties held after people finished the crops. When a farmer would move in this time, the house was empty so they would invite friends and neighbors to a house dance. A band with accordian and stringed instruments would play in one room and people would dance in the other rooms. And, of course there was always local food.
One recipe was the epitome to me of this cookbook – it was the Poppy Seed Cake of the great granddaughter of a branch ancestor off of my own family tree – Elsie Billimek Farris. It was a direct from the homeland recipe. Poppyseed kolaches and pastries are central to the Eastern European palate and are also the largest remaining evidence in the Texas Hill Country of their immigration to the area, after the Revolution of 1848 in the Germanic world. This recipe recommended soaking the poppy seeds in milk over night – a tip made long before the days of commercially available poppy seed paste.
What was even cooler was a pic of old photos showing all the women and families into which this recipe passed. Starting with Anna Ripper Billemek (1817-1893) and Magdalena Junger Woellert (1826-1877) , the immigrants from Belotin, Moravia, it passed to Ludmilla Woellert Billemek, then to her daughter-in-law, Annie Christine Adamek Billimek, and to her daughter Elise Billimek Farris. It was cool to see the hardened faces of each of these women who made this poppy seed cake in the tarnished photos staring back at me. You can even see the sprigs of rosemary pinned on the grooms in the wedding photos, an Eastern European custom symbolizing male fertility.
Another note in this cookbook was made for a recipe for German Cole Slaw, of Annie Adamek Billimek, Elsie’s mother. it said: Annie Billimek was known to be one of the best helpers at the High Hill Church feast dinners, bringing her own cake cutting knife and big serving spoon with bright red nail polish on the handles to ensure she brought them back home.
Most recipes do pass on through maternal lines, but there are rare cases when a recipe can pass down through the paternal lines. This is true of many grill rubs, chili recipes, and alcoholic drinks, not surprisingly. One of the great laments of my family is that no one asked to get Grandpa Woellert’s homemade German egg nog or eierliquor recipe, that probably came from his grandfather in Northern Germany. There’s also the Sacred Heart Spaghetti Meatball recipe that came from Peter Palazzolo and probably his father Antonio, from Sicily, but that’s another story.
To me Church Lady Cookbooks are as important as Bibles, in the information they can offer. You’ll never find me giving away a good Church Lady Cookbook.