In 1891, my great-great-grandmother boarded a ship in Sweden bound for America and for a husband who'd left when she was pregnant seven years before for a wagon factory job in Springfield, Mo.
In tow were two children and a suitcase that carried just a few necessities, including a bread knife and a rolling pin from a country Carolina Sophia would never visit again.
Almost 120 years later, the sturdy black-handled knife with razorlike teeth and the long, smooth rolling pin are still in use in my grandmother's kitchen, less than 40 miles from where her grandmother first unpacked them after the long journey.
"You don't see anything like it this day and age," my grandmother said of the knife. "It's never been sharpened. Doesn't need it. Only thing I ever use it for is to cut angel food cake and bread, of course." She went on to explain that her mother used the knife to cut coffeecake during Scandinavian club meetings she hosted in the 1930s.
My grandmother, who turns 80 next month, is the culinary matriarch of my family. She is the keeper of not only kitchen heirlooms but also recipes and the stories behind them that say as much about my family history as the photo albums in her living room.
Texas food expert Dawn Orsak understands the importance of food history.
"Some people are after recipes, but I'm after stories," says Orsak, who specializes in recording history through food traditions. From generation to generation, we pass down food traditions, habits, recipes, cookbooks and even utensils that carry with them historical details as unique as our genetic code, but many of us don't think to record that history because, after all, what's so interesting about something as quotidian as how you fix up your cup of coffee?
For my dad, every morning that he drizzles a swirl of honey in his cream-filled coffee, he keeps alive a piece of his late great-uncle, a beekeeper who never drank a cup of coffee without a drop of the sweet stuff he collected.
Food is a great starting point to preserving family history because it's so visceral, Orsak says. "Everybody likes talking about food, and it brings up memories you wouldn't think of otherwise."
Before long, your mother isn't just talking about how, when she first got married to your dad and didn't know how to cook, they got into a fight because he didn't like big chunks of ground beef in the Hamburger Helper she made. She's painting a detailed picture of what those first weeks were like as newlyweds on an Air Force base nearly 40 years ago.
Cookbooks, old food magazines and recipe boxes are like historical time capsules, Orsak says. If you're lucky enough to flip through them with their original owners, the handwritten notes or dog-eared pages might elicit a memory of where a dish came from or a special occasion when it was served. Photo albums often hold pictures of birthday or wedding cakes, barbecues, potlucks or reunions that can give clues to your past.
Food can help answer the bigger questions about what your ancestors valued and how they viewed their place in the world, says Orsak. My grandmother's only memory of the Great Depression, for instance, is her mother bringing plates of food to hobos who would pass through on the nearby train. (In retelling the story, one detail that never slips by is that her mother would then wash the dishes in not hot, but scalding, water.)
Orsak's parents, who grew up just after World War II, still keep a fully stocked fridge, freezer and pantry. When she asked her dad why, he replied, "It makes me feel safe."
"Once you get an answer like that, it opens up a whole different conversation with your dad," Orsak says.
If you're interested in your family's ethnic heritage, food is one of the best places to start because it's often the last vestige of cultural traditions to go. Generations after Orsak's family members stopped speaking Czech or playing the accordion, they are still making kolaches and sausages at family meals.
So after you start asking questions and digging around, what do you do with the information you find? At Christmas a few years ago, my mother gave everyone in the family cookbooks she'd made out of three-ring binders and recipes slipped into plastic sleeves. On each recipe page, she included the story of why the recipe was important to her and a little bit about the person it came from. Even though I don't cook from the book often, it holds treasured details about the friends and family who meant something to my mom.
Orsak recommends bringing food traditions to life by hosting heritage dinners or cooking meaningful dishes from your past with your kids. Food is always a centerpiece at family reunions, so consider asking relatives to bring significant or memorable dishes.
"Connecting with the past makes me feel grounded and part of the universe," Orsak says. People often start to get interested in genealogy and preserving family history when they have children of their own. "Especially when you have kids, you want to give them an idea of where they come from," she says. "You want kids to have an identity that's bigger than them."
From the warm cookies co-workers have delivered to the hospital when you're recovering from the birth of your first child to the casserole the neighbor drops off when she hears that your father is entering the hospital, food plays a role in almost every moment in our lives.
To anyone else, the bread knife that has been in my grandmother's kitchen drawer for more than 50 years is just a tool to slice a loaf of bread. But in my mind, it's a slice of me.
2 1/2 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup softened butter
1 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon and sugar. Work in the softened butter, eggs and milk. Stir until smooth. Pour into a greased cake pan. Cream together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle on top of the cake batter and bake for about 35 minutes. (To create a middle layer of filling, you can also pour half the batter in the pan, sprinkle half the topping, and then repeat with the rest of ingredeints.)
— Adapted from a recipe from Ester Wagner