20 June 2015

The Roots of Family Traditions and the Stories We Should Tell


I was driving my 17 year old to work and we were running a little late. She had taken a shower and dried her hair but planned on putting on her makeup in the car. This is a custom I have seen her do many times as we have rushed to different events. This time however, we were riding in my little truck. I have grown to love my truck. It has taken me on many adventures as well as many more routine trips. In a couple more years it will officially be a classic. The classic features of my truck include windows rolled by hand and an enthusiastically uncharged air conditioning. As the temperature rises I have  I have become accustomed to riding everywhere with the window down.


As my daughter struggled to apply her makeup she patiently asked that I roll the window up. As I complied she began to paint. As we got a couple miles into our drive she asked why it was so hot in the cab of the truck. It was then that in dawned on her that windows were down to control the temperature and not for my simple pleasure. As I thought about this, my wife is always asking me to roll up the window in our new car. The wind from driving with the window down in pleasurable to me but distracting to her. My daughter was asking me to do the same without realizing why I had the window down. I did not realize that I have been driving my whole life with the window down. It was only recently, to me, that we have had a car with air conditioning. Where my daughter has come to expect the convenience.

I am not trying to wax nostalgic but only illustrate that customs and traditions are passed down from generation, sometime out of necessity. Some customs become traditions with out us realizing it and others without our intent. It reminds me of a story I heard once. I can't remember if I heard it in a cooking class at school or a talk in church. Snopes tells me it may be an urban legend, but it still rings true to me.

The story goes something like, a young bride is cooking her first Thanksgiving dinner. She is using the new set of pans and dishes to make every delicacy the has enjoyed as well as a couple recipes from her new husband's family. They invited each of their parents to join them for the feast and well as her grandmother. As they sat down to feast, the young husband brings in the turkey to carve it in front of the guests only to be surprised that the legs of the turkey have already been cut off. He asks his lovely bride why the legs have already been detached and she replies, "That's how my mother always did it". Her mother quickly adds, "It helps to keep the breast meat from overcooking and becoming dry. That is how my mother taught me to do it too." Satisfied with the answer the groom begins to carve the rest of the beautifully prepared bird when the grandmother says, "I only cut off the legs because it wouldn't fit in the pan I always cooked it in."


I am not sure why I remember this story but It has always stuck with me. Both for good and bad, traditions and customs are passed down family lines. Snopes says that a similar story ran in a Canadian edition of Reader's Digest:
"When my friend Dale opens a can, she always turns it upside down to open it from the bottom. One day her young son asked her why. "I don't really know," she said. "My mom always did it that way." She decided to call her mom and ask. "When we brought the cans up from the cellar, the tops were always dusty," her mother explained. "I couldn't be bothered to clean them, so I turned them upside down and opened the bottom."
Food is a great way to see things passed down through families. These traditions and family favorites can be cultural as well as traditional. My son is serving a mission in Australia. He arrived there in October with is summertime there. In November he was invited to an American families home for dinner. When he arrived they ate a traditional thanksgiving feast. When he related the experience at church the following Sunday only the American's in the congregation truly understood the dinner. The majority of people had only seen and heard of American Thanksgiving. They had never experienced it themselves.


My grandma 'B' always made us fried Spam with Kraft macaroni and cheese. She would put a squirt of ketchup on the plate to dip Spam and in the bowl to stir in with the mac and cheese. I was a teen before I new that this was only considered a delicacy to my grandparents and their grand kids. My grandfather ate many cans of Spam during the great depression years. It was something he could not only afford but could keep without the cost of ice or refrigeration to keep it from going bad. When I was young I even saw him use it as fish bate but that story is for another time.

It is true that corned beef and cabbage is as Irish as spaghetti is Italian.  Both meals are traditional but the custom of corned beef can only be traced to our Irish American ancestors. An article from History.com conveys more accurately the story behind the custom:
"The new wave of immigrants brought their own food traditions, including soda bread and Irish stew. Pork was the preferred meat, since it was cheap in Ireland and ubiquitous on the dinner table. The favored cut was Irish bacon, a lean, smoked pork loin similar to Canadian bacon. But in the United States, pork was prohibitively expensive for most newly arrived Irish families, so they began cooking beef—the staple meat in the American diet—instead.

So how did pork and potatoes become corned beef and cabbage? Irish immigrants to America lived alongside other “undesirable” European ethnic groups that often faced discrimination in their new home, including Jews and Italians. Members of the Irish working class in New York City frequented Jewish delis and lunch carts, and it was there that they first tasted corned beef. Cured and cooked much like Irish bacon, it was seen as a tasty and cheaper alternative to pork. And while potatoes were certainly available in the United States, cabbage offered a more cost-effective alternative to cash-strapped Irish families. Cooked in the same pot, the spiced, salty beef flavored the plain cabbage, creating a simple, hearty dish that couldn’t be easier to prepare.
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I remember eating corned beef and cabbage as a child. Far from our Irish roots the cost of the dish was one my family could afford. My dear mother prepared it is a heavy broth with mostly cabbage and spices and thinly sliced corned beef chopped into tiny pieces. It wasn't until I was married and my mother-in-law made corned beef and cabbage that I realized it wasn't traditionally a soup. We also ate beet greens, grilled tuna and cheese, chipped beef on toast [or SOS], broken bread cereal, and fried turnips. I cannot say for sure at the food we ate was because of our own financial status or because these were traditional foods that my parents ate as children.


I know that my parents made cheese fondue. One of my all time favorites where bread, fruit, and meats are dipped into cheese. This traditional food became a fad in the 70s but this is one recipe I make sure I have on occasion. I do not feel as nostalgic about the beet greens or chipped beef on toast but I need to get that turnip recipe from my mom. I also stopped eating mac & cheese with ketchup.

When writing stories about our families do not assume that your children understand what you are talking about or why you did the things you did. I have heard my parents talk about life before television or my grandpa's first ever ride in a car. To our descendants they take these kind of events as everyday things. Much like the new generation of Family Historians who don't leave home to work on their Family History because "everything's on the Internet". To sound like my parents, I remember life before the Internet..... These details in stories add texture and meaning. Hawaiians may appreciate a good Spam sandwich but when I bought two cans last year and fried one up the other stayed in the cupboard for several months.

The stories I tell my kids about my ancestors are those I can remember best. Those stories have color and texture that help me to remember them. Genealogy and Family History needs this to keep people interested past the dates and dashes. Do not let your database strain out all of the facts and figures only to lose the flavor and traditions of your family.