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!

Study: ‘Family stories’ more important than inheritance

There have been a number of studies over the past several years that have tried to get a handle on how much wealth pre-baby boomers — those born before 1946 — are going to pass down to their baby boomer and post-baby boomer heirs.

In fact, while all agree the number will set a new record for intergenerational transfers, the figures vary widely, ranging from $25 trillion to $136 trillion. The specific number probably isn’t that important to most of us since any number followed by a trillion — with a “T” — is a lot.  Perhaps surprisingly, however, a study found that amount is also of less interest to the boomers themselves.

In a 2005 study commissioned by the Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America, 86% of boomers named “family stories” as the most important part of their legacy — ahead of possessions and inheritance.

The study, which consisted of interviews with more than 2,600 seniors and boomers, also found that non-financial items that parents leave behind — like ethics, morals, faith, and religion — are 10 times more important to both boomers and their parents than the financial aspects of inheritance.

The parents, however, aren’t buying it.

“Boomers,” the study found, “indicate they prefer to preserve their parents’ memories than receive a financial inheritance, while elders believe their boomer children are more interested in money.”

The study concluded that this disconnect, which is part of what the authors referred to as a “Legacy Gap,” needs to be addressed by parents and their children. To do so, the study identified “4 Pillars” that it suggests should form the basis of a meaningful conversation. Those included having discussions about: (1) values and life lessons, (2) instructions and final wishes and (3) financial assets.

A fourth pillar was a discussion of “personal possessions of emotional value,” or what we at Houstory simply like to call “heirlooms.”

Specifically the study urges heirs to ask their senior family members:

  • Are there items that document your life and/or family’s life that you would like to see passed on to future generations
  • Where do you keep your family photos – in albums or saved electronically, or other
  • Do you have any journals, diaries, scrapbooks, family history, or other important documents you would like to pass on?
  • Do you have household items that hold significant emotional value, but do not have much financial value?
  • Do you have toys, books, or mementos that you’d like to pass on to your children or grand children
  • Are there items like art, crafts, or furniture that evoke fond memories for you and your family?
  • Have you planned for the distribution of these items?

Of course, it’s these very questions and a desire to create an easy, effective and inexpensive way to address them that inspired the creation of The Heirloom Registry.

Giving one’s senior parents or relatives a handful of registry stickers or tags — or better, taking a couple hours to walk around their home with them to hear and help record stories about a few special items — can be both tremendously satisfying and a big step in helping close the legacy gap.

Homesickness and the natural longing for all things “home”

It’s about a month into the new school year. Which, according to those who track such things, means homesickness among college freshman is now hitting its peak.Home embroidery

Homesickness is the topic of a fascinating book, Homesickness: An American History, published late last year by historian Susan J. Matt, in which she knocks down some of the stereotype beliefs associated with homesickness. While Americans like to portray themselves as optimistic adventurers, always ready to wave goodbye to the past, pack up the car (or wagon train) and boldly blaze their trail into the unknown, Matt found that the evidence actually makes it pretty clear most of us are — and always have been — sentimental homebodies.

In fact, Matt found that the attempt to disguise or hide homesickness, for fear of being seen as weak, is a fairly recent societal phenomenon.

She found that homesickness was a tolerated part of life well into the 19th Century.  For example, during the Civil War, soldiers openly wrote about their longing for home and family. The Surgeon General’s office actually listed “nostalgia” — which was believed to be a severe case of homesickness— as the official cause of death for 74 Union soldiers. Immigrants during that time shamelessly recreated home in their new communities.  She found that homesickness among women, longing for a return to hearth and family, was even popularized by the press as a virtue.

With the industrial revolution and the advent of Social Darwinism, however, the tolerance for homesickness started to change. Homesickness was viewed as the inability to adapt, a mark of inferiority. Men, especially, were castigated for wasting time reminiscing about home or openly expressing their emotions. Beginning in the 1920s, experts warned parents of the dangers of coddling their kids — a parenting no-no some labeled “momism” — and told mothers to refrain from hugging and kissing their kids too much. Leaving home and not looking back was promoted as an important rite of passage, with those who remained behind frequently dumped into the “loser” camp.

While steering clear of more direct displays of homesickness, Matt said that modern society has tried to soothe the lost feeling of family and home with mementos of the past, or “nostalgic indulgences,” such as the purchase of retro homes, retro cars and a fascination with the toys, clothes, entertainment and brands of our childhood.

But the pendulum may be swinging back. Matt points to statistics and changing demographics that indicate a growing nostalgia for the past and desire to recreate “home” through — or, never leave it all. A 2008 Pew study of census data found that Americans today are settling down and are more likely to stay in one place than any group since the government began tracking the trend in the late 1940s.

In a radio interview with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Jim Fleming, Matt said that moving back towards an acceptance our natural call to home is probably a healthy thing.

“I do think that a lot of the alarm we hear today about children being too connected to their parents, all that discussion, and boomerang kids, helicopter parents, that there isn’t enough distance between them is based on a mythic view of our past that somewhere back in a different century we were more individualistic than we are…. I don’t think we’re that much different from earlier generations and I don’t think we should perhaps worry that we’re becoming soft or less independent, or less individualistic because I’m not at all convinced we were that individualistic 100 years ago, 150 years ago.”

Dear Photograph: 22-year-old starts a ‘new-age nostalgic’ storytelling movement

Not long ago, we came upon a concept that immediately resonated with us: A Web site that urges users to blend the past and present together using photography.  It’s a notion very similar to our Houstory Hearth post from March (“Bring your home’s history to life using these simple photo tips“). In that article, we talked about the magic of shooting pictures of your house from a similar vantage point to one done in the past, and then blending the images together. The results were impressive and fascinating.

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Dear Photograph, the book, features more than 200 photos submitted readers.

Dear Photograph, which was started by 22-year-old Taylor Jones, urges a similar call to action — except with more of a focus on people. No digital manipulation is required, as submitters simply hold up a current photo against the background of an older photo — lining up the angles as best as possible — and snapping a shot of that image. These juxtapositions are not only fun, but also elicit a lot of emotion .

Maybe it’s revisiting the site of your senior photo and reenacting a similar scene 20 years later, or going back to grandma’s dining room to take an updated photo of a family dinner 30 years past.

Listen to a story on Dear Photograph — including how Jones developed the idea (spoiler alert: Winnie the Pooh was involved) —  from earlier this week .

Over the past year — since the conception of the project — thousands of people have contributed photos to his blog, and earlier this month he published a book entitled “Dear Photograph” highlighting some of these photos.

The project is a modern-day testimony to the power of storytelling — and preserving legacy.  If you’d like to contribute photos, you can do so at http://dearphotograph.com.

UPDATE: Genealogist and family historian Caroline Pointer (www.4yourfamilystory.com) pointed out Dear Photograph’s similarity to another site – HistoryPin.com – which we wrote about last October (“New site allows millions chance to explore the past, share the present). Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Caroline!