Legacy through the stomach: Family cookbooks and family recipes as family heirlooms

This post originally ran Aug. 1, 2012. It details the importance that family cookbooks play as family heirlooms — and in turn as vital parts of family history.

By Dan Hiestand, Houstory Publishing Marketing Director

For the better part of two decades, my grandparents lived in paradise. To find this “Eden,” pull out a map of the contiguous United States, and let your fingers inch up, up, north to the Canadian border; then left, left, west to the Pacific.

You’ll know you’re in the right place when you reach the part of Washington state that isn’t there. Or rather, only bits of land are visible  — tiny dots amid the cold, salty waters of the Puget Sound. It was on one of these specks, among the San Juan Islands on a place called Lopez Island, that I spent some of my most memorable childhood days.

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Gommy in the garden on Lopez Island.

Lopez is a little less than 30 square miles in area, and is a biker’s paradise because of its relatively flat landscape. During the ’70s and ’80s, when my grandparents Tom and Gerri Walsh lived there, it was still a relatively unknown place compared to the vacation home-laden landscape of today — a retirees’ paradise where everyone (quite literally) waved to everyone they might pass on the road.

For me, what defined paradise as a kid was simple: spending summer days skipping glacier-flattened rocks on Fisherman’s Bay; upturning boulders to search for scurrying rock crabs; sailing to town for warm french fries and cold cokes with my brothers; hot dogs by the fire on the beach…you get the picture.  

Food, of course, was a centerpiece of my memories. I suppose that’s what having fresh Northwest berries with nearly every breakfast (picked straight out of my grandparent’s garden), or dining on crab caught just an hour earlier will do.

I still remember, very clearly, Gommy (“grandma,” for our audience) baking bread in the kitchen, and Gompy (grandpa) picking long, fresh green beans for the night’s dinner.

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What brought all this up for me was a video I recently watched over at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. In the piece, genealogist Lisa Louise Cooke interviewed Gena Philibert-Ortega, who authors the blog “Food.Family.Ephemera,”which looks at how food history and family history intertwine. You can hear the full interview at the Genealogy Gem’s podcast page (episode 137).

As Gena and Lisa discussed, knowing what past generations incorporated into their meals brings a family’s history alive in a way other bits of data (such as census records and obituaries) simply cannot. The “Rhubarb Torte” recipe that Gommy submitted to The Lopez Island Cookbook — a 189-page community effort flowered with the dishes of the island’s citizens — is now my “Rhubarb Torte.” Anytime I want to take my taste buds back to the driftwood-lined beaches of Fisherman’s Bay, I’m but a few ingredients away.

Through her palate and her cookbook, a vital part of my grandma’s legacy is alive. Now, it’s up to me to make sure my heirs receive this message.

It’s been more than 20 years since Gommy and Gompy sold their house on the island, and the Lopez of today has a much different feel than the one I grew up with. I think it simply doesn’t feel quite as small as it once did.  I’m glad I have my grandmother’s cookbook to remember it the way I want to.

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The back page of my Lopez Island Cookbook.

For Gommy’s “Lopez Island Cookbook” Rhubarb Torte recipe, as well as some more photos, please visit our Facebook page. Do you have any family cookbooks that have been passed down, or you plan on passing down to your heirs? How about any family recipes? Please share it with our readers, and let us know what you think of our blog. Thanks!

8 comments on “Legacy through the stomach: Family cookbooks and family recipes as family heirlooms

  1. Brenda Leyndyke says:

    It is so true that family cookbooks add another dimension to our ancestry. I cherish a church cookbook that my extended family submitted recipes for.

  2. Hi Brenda. Thank you for the comment! How did you come into possession of the cookbook? Was it passed on to you? Do you ever make the recipes? Sorry — so many questions. 🙂

  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed the podcast and video Dan! I spent several happy summer vacations with my best friend at her grandparents home on the beach at Whidbey Island, so I can relate. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Sandy Hay says:

    Enjoyed reading about Lopez Island. I have a copy of the Lopez Island cookbook. My husband brought it home in 1985. He had been on fishing trip.

  5. Wow, that’s great, Sandy! I’m not sure if you have the same version that I do, but just in case, my grandma’s recipes (which were not actually under her name for some reason) are for Rhubarb Torte and Crab Mushroom Dip. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  6. Interesting because I have recently asked my mom to write down some of my favorite recipes from her and from her mother. The only one that I have from my dad’s mom was her bread pudding from Germany. Hmmm, maybe I’ll make that tonight!

  7. Houstory Publishing says:

    Mmmm…I love bread pudding! I’m glad to hear you asked your mom for the recipes. Compiling that info is definitely something that can get overlooked with the passage of time if you don’t just do it. Thanks for sharing!

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