Country Kitchen: Learning About Ancestors' Cooking

Country Kitchen: Learning About Ancestors' Cooking

By Mary Emma Allen

So that your ancestors become more than simply names and dates on your charts, learn about their lifestyles and the social and political affairs of their times. This helps them "come alive" for you, so they are people who actually lived.

For someone who is interested in foods and culinary history, discovering what people in your ancestorsÂ’ era and area ate and how they cooked can be fascinating.

Where to Find Food History

You may wonder where you can find information about the foods of a particular era or region. Those of your parents and grandparents might be available by word-of-mouth or in notes and notebooks.

My aunt kept a cookbook, actually a notebook in which she wrote down recipes she collected from her mother, her grandmothers, relatives and friends. My grandfather, a writer, included childhood food memories and recipes in his newspaper columns.

Discover AncestorsÂ’ Backgrounds

Discover the nationalities of your ancestors, the countries they came from, the areas of the country where they settled. Then check out recipe books and food histories for those regions or ethnic/cultural groups. Even though these might not be the exact recipes your ancestors used, they will give you some idea of your food history.

My ancestors came predominately from England, Ireland and Germany. My husbandÂ’s originated in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and England. His grandmother was born in England and sailed to Boston when she was sixteen.

However, the area of the country where they settled will play a role in the food they prepared. The years in which they lived also determines the type of cooking they did.

Along the Santa Fe Trail

As I researched my paternal grandmotherÂ’s genealogy, I discovered that her uncle, William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson, operated trading posts along the Santa Fe Trail in the 1850s and 1860s. He and his wife Lizzie were pioneers in the settling of Wichita, Kansas.

I've tried to discover what life was like for them and actually found pictures of the site where one of his trading posts stood at Cow Creek Crossing. Uncle William achieved the name "Buffalo Bill" because he provided buffalo meat for starving settlers during the harsh winter of 1860-61.

We know that much of the meat came from that settlers hunting on the plains. The Native American influence was great as pioneers came in contact with these people. Even though supplies were freighted in to the trading posts, refrigeration was unknown, so food often was dried or salted for preservation.

Army forts were established along the trail and the cooking there might be a little more sophisticated than in the wilds. They also used canned foods that were shipped in.

The Mexican influence was evident, especially as the Santa Fe Trail wound its way to what is now New Mexico. There you'd find chili, tortillas, tamales, chili con carne and more.

Corn a Staple

Corn, a staple with all the pioneers, was served in various ways. Salt pork usually kept well, so found its way into numerous recipes.

HASTY PUDDING was often was prepared when ingredients were simple or scarce. Because it contained molasses, this dish sometimes was considered a dessert.

Combine in a pot...3/4 cup cornmeal, pinch of salt, 1/4 to 1/2 cup molasses (depending on the desired sweetness), 3 cups milk, and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (if you were lucky enough to have it). Heat this to boiling, then cover and simmer, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.

Generally it was served in bowls over which one poured milk. A pat of butter could be added to each dish.

(My mother made it without the molasses and cinnamon and called it CORN MEAL MUSH, often our Sunday night supper. We then added sugar or syrup if we wanted with the additional milk.)

(C) 2003 Mary Emma Allen

About the Author

Mary Emma Allen has been writing her "Cooking Column" for newspapers and online publications for 30 years and has compiled a family cookbook. SheÂ’s currently compiling a cookbook/story book, "Tales From a Country Kitchen." Visit her web site for more cooking articles. Contact her at

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