AUSTIN, Texas - In 1891, my great-great-grandmother boarded a ship in Sweden bound for America, to rejoin a husband who had left her behind, pregnant, seven years earlier for a wagon factory job in Springfield, Mo.
In tow were two children and a suitcase that held just a few necessities, including a bread knife and a rolling pin from a country that 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.
Food is a great starting point for 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."
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. Orsak's parents, who grew up just after World War II, still keep a fully stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry. When she asked her father why, he replied, "It makes me feel safe."
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 for family meals.
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 cooking meaningful dishes from your past with your kids. People often become interested in genealogy and preserving family history when they have children, Orsak says: "You want to give them an idea of where they come from . . . to have an identity that's bigger than them."
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 1/2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup softened butter
1 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix together flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Work in the softened butter, eggs, and milk. Stir until smooth.
3. Pour into a greased cake pan.
4. 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 ingredients.)
Per serving (based on 10): 331 calories, 6 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 26 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 69 milligrams cholesterol, 422 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber