Central to women's health is making connections that help support emotional well-being. And I have found one key connection to be family food traditions.
This summer I have been immersed in family genealogy and have thus been reflecting on how my family history has influenced our own household, including food ways. In an era when families are flung across the country, and even across the globe, traditions can be an important way to center and ground one's self. My husband and I live over 1,000 miles away from our parents, with only one sibling, an aunt and cousin in the state. Lacking inter-generational family community in a geographical sense for the past 25 years, I have come to recognize that a crucial contribution to my own emotional well-being comes from understanding and honoring my roots - the glories, losses, inequities, joys, tragedies and triumphs.
Just across the Missouri River from Leavenworth, Kansas, is Platte County, Missouri, where my family settled in the 1800s. These ancestors were part of the great Western migration that displaced and decimated Native Americans, and most were farmers. One of the towns in Platte County, Weston, was a thriving economic center in the western Missouri frontier. The image to the right is an engraving of Weston from 1853. The city boasts the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States: McCormick Distilling Company. At one time larger than Kansas City, Weston was a port town along the Muddy Missouri until the river flooded and changed course. That event spelled the end of growth for Weston but allowed for preservation of its 19th-century history. Many antebellum homes still exist there and have been restored, including my parents' home, where Grandma Marr lived in her latter years.
My heritage is primarily an eclectic mix of Northern European, reflecting the melting pot that was Platte County in the 19th century. During the Civil War, western Missouri was a bitterly war-torn area, and family members fought on both sides of the war. Some earlier-arriving ancestors migrated from Virgina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, while others immigrated from Germany, Ireland and Holland.
What resulted is a family food culture that blends Southern American traditions with a very strong German influence. Childhood food experiences included springerle, lebekuchen and pfeffernusse, along with fried chicken, and ham and beans. Mom tells of her extended family, living on four neighboring farms, butchering hogs in the winter, the men fabricating the meat in the cellars, and the women in the kitchens preparing blutwurst, pickled pigs' feet and other German delicacies.
Some time in the mid-90s, I read the book Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by linguist and anthropologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Textiles, like food, leave no direct lasting record. Barber reconstructs textile history through archaeology, geology, art, and ancient texts. For most women, our inter-generational experiences are the key to preserving family food traditions.
At home, I caught the bug for cooking from my home-economist mother, and she passed down many of her family's food traditions. When I was growing up, we visited my grandparents in Platte County nearly every summer. That was a time when we could cook in the kitchen with Grandma. At Mom's parents, we had freshly killed fried chicken, and we helped pluck the feathers. (Watching Grandma Poss chop the head off the chickens provided morbid fascination for we suburban children.) On nearby farmland was a pecan tree that supplied a key ingredient for caramel-frosted, rolled sugar cookies. At Grandma Marr's house we would feast over ham with green beans and potatoes, cooked with bacon. Grandma had a peach tree, and we sometimes made peach cobbler.
Beyond recipes, I have a few mementos that are put to use in my kitchen during cookie baking endeavors. Grandma (Tudy) Marr's family owned the St. George Hotel in Weston, and I have one of her tea towels inked with her and the hotel's names. Well loved, the cloth is still used for cooling cookies fresh from the oven. From Grandma Poss, I have cookie cutters that I use with her sugar cookie recipe.
In the future, I will be posting recipes for some of the family food traditions mentioned in this article.
Update December 18, 2009: Happy Holidays: Grandma's Sugar Cookies with Caramel Frosting
Update January 17, 2010: Anise Schnitte or Toasted Anise Cakes
Update December 12, 2010: Grandma Poss' Caramel Frosting
This post is part of the Women's Health Blogfest:
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