Old Recipes: Uncommon Genealogy Research Items: GeneFoods #5

Have you ever considered looking for old recipes as a means of finding out more about your ancestors and their lives? It is a worthwhile pursuit. Food is something that connects us through the generations, sometimes for centuries or more. Here are some ideas on finding out what your ancestors ate, and why you should look for those ancient and interesting recipes.

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Everyone loves food. In fact, it is more than just a means of nutrition. It is a tie that binds the generations together. Food traditions in families are often handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter (or grandfather to father to son), resulting in decades, and even centuries, of beloved recipes, being made to celebrate certain special days within families. Some families have been using certain recipes for so long that they can’t even remember a time when they were not serving a particular dish, or where it originated.

Other times, a special old recipe is found in the pages of an antique cookbook owned by an ancestor, showing us what they liked to cook, or maybe reminding older relatives of a beloved dish they had forgotten about. The recipe may be one that was cut out of a magazine or newspaper, written by hand on a notecard or piece of paper, or handwritten in the margins of the book. These found recipes are great ways to bring back old family traditions around the table that may have been lost with the passing of time and are also a wonderful way to honor the ancestors who made these dishes.

Each generation is unique in what foods are available to it, as well as what foods are popular, and even if there was a famine going on in the area where your ancestors lived or not. All of these things affect what a family eats during any given generation. Learning about the foods your own ancestors ate will not only let you know what they liked, but it will also show you what economic and social conditions were like in their areas during their time periods. It will let you know what foods they had available to them, and what foods were popular.

Researching old recipes is about more than just learning what people made to eat in past generations. It is about learning about the times and places in which an ancestor lived, which lets you know more about their lives and who they were as people.

It is not too difficult to find old recipes from medieval times, as lists of food served at banquets held by the wealthy, the nobility, and royalty were well-documented during those times, and a lot of them are still preserved today. It is interesting to compare what those people ate, as compared to what we would consider palatable today. As an example, eels were a popular medieval dish for the wealthy, and they were served in a variety of ways, even in a rather gag-inducing dish called “eel jelly.” We may stick out our tongues at such a dish today, but five to six hundred years ago, people loved it, probably because eels were readily available to them in most of the coastal European countries.

As for what the peasants ate during medieval times, it was usually what they could grow on their farms, and what game was available to them in the areas where they were allowed to hunt. This information can easily be found by looking up agricultural, flora, and fauna information for the time period.

While reading about what people of many centuries ago ate is interesting, and an important part of our family history for those who are lucky enough to be able to trace their lineage back that far, it is usually the more recent recipes that intrigue us the most. That is because the recipes of the past century to century and a half are almost within touching distance for us, and we may have known someone who ate that food or knew someone who knew someone who ate it. It is more personal to us, and those recipes, or variations of them, may actually still exist in our families in some form, being eaten even today. There is a reason ancestral cookbooks are so popular, either to buy online or to make for other relatives as gifts.

So, how do you find these more recent recipes? There are a few different ways. You may have an old cookbook that belonged to an ancestor. If you have just had it sitting around and have not looked at it in-depth, you should. What you find in it may be surprising. As an example, I have a printed cookbook from the 1930s that belonged to my great-grandmother. In it are Depression-era recipes for such dubious delicacies as “possum pie” and “squirrel stew.” Yet, these were recipes that used things ancestors during that time period could find for free. In the cookbook are also recipes clipped from magazines that my great-grandmother saved, and handwritten recipes she wrote on notecards and slips of paper and put in between the cookbook’s pages.

I also have a scrapbook of recipes my grandmother clipped and saved, probably thinking she may try to make them one day, and a handful of clipped and handwritten recipes that are loose that my other grandmother saved. Some of those recipes, I actually remember her making, and I ate them as a child. It is nice to have those recipes, knowing I can re-create them and that experience for my family one day.

If you don’t have anything like this, you might try asking other relatives if they do. Who knows who may have inherited or saved a family cookbook or handwritten or clipped recipes in your family? Ask around. You can also look for these recipes at local archives, libraries, and historical societies.

If you can’t find recipes your ancestors actually used, try looking in old newspaper archives from papers of their time period. It was common for there to be a recipe section. This will give you an idea of the foods that were popular in your ancestor’s area during their lives. 

When you know what foods your ancestors ate, or have an idea of what they probably ate, it will bring you closer to them in so many important genealogical ways. Look for the recipes, and connect with your ancestors more deeply than ever.


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.