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Food for Thought: How Old Family Recipes Reveal Your Ancestral Story

Ever thought of trying old family recipes and cookbooks to solve a tough genealogy problem? Or at least using them to find fascinating insight into your family's past? You can!

You may be surprised how much of your family’s history you can learn from these gems. For example, you might discover a recipe that has been passed down from your great-grandparents, written on a tattered piece of paper that's been hidden away. Might there be a clue on the paper? or in the recipe itself? Is there a note on the back? Does the recipe card offer a friend's name in the form of "from the kitchen of ___?" Where did that old cookbook come from? A cousin? Read on for ways to use recipes and cookbooks to tackle genealogy!

Consider these four clues that you might find in your old family recipes:

Clues to Other Family and Friends: Think of where you get your recipes. Many times, we use church, social club, and community cookbooks or we get copies of recipes from our family and friends. When you research your ancestors' or relatives' cookbooks and recipes, the SOURCE of those may be big, big clues to answer brick wall questions. Research those recipe-source people. Who were they? A social group to which your ancestor belonged? A second cousin? Use these clues to your advantage.

Family Migration: Recipes can offer clues to where your family came from and how they ended up where they are today. For example, if your family's recipe calls for specific ingredients that are commonly found in a certain country, it might suggest that your family has roots in that region. Scour those recipes and research the dishes and ingredients for clues!

Ingredients: Every family has “go to” ingredients that makes up their dishes. Discovering these ingredients and considering WHY they were used can add some spice to your family history search. The types of meats, veggies, spices, sauces, or even techniques passed down through the generations can tell you a lot about your family. Are the ingredients extravagant? Practical? Even if they only add salt and pepper… what does that mean? Is it a clue that your family lived frugally or even struggled? Tiny clues here can add a new dimension to your research.

Family Traditions: Many families have special dishes that are only made on special occasions, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. These dishes may have been handed down from grandparents or great-grandparents, and the recipe itself may be written on an old, tattered piece of paper or even passed down orally from generation to generation. This may be a window into the celebrations and fanfare (or lack thereof) around holidays.

Family Feuds: Yes, family recipes can also reveal interesting family dynamics, such as longstanding feuds or rivalries. For example, your great-grandmother's famous lasagna recipe might not have been shared with certain family members. Why? Was there a rivalry? What was going on there? Recipes tend to be a personal gift from one person to another. Could a disagreement be the reason one was not shared?

Old family recipes and cookbooks are a great way to learn more about your family history and culture. They can offer clues to secrets, feuds, migration, and traditions, making them a valuable and entertaining addition to any family history research. So dig out those old recipe books, fire up the oven, and get ready to discover some delicious family history!


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