Cooking, Food, Identity, Collections, and Family

Essay I wrote for the alumni magazine where I work on my personal connections to food, cooking, family, and culture, and how they relate to my curatorial and teaching work with our cookery and foodways collection.

Some of my first memories are cooking and baking (or, really, making a mess with food) in the kitchen with my mother, Nancy. Like most 1980s moms who worked, she didn’t have a lot of time for either, so the time I got to spend with her in the kitchen felt really special. I learned from her how to look for recipes that “worked” and change them to make them my own, though neither of us ever approached the “you just know” methods of my grandmother or great-grandmother. When my mother passed away in 2005, I inherited shelves of cookbooks, each with marginalia detailing her (or her mother’s, or her friends’) small changes to recipes that didn’t quite taste the way she wanted to – adding more garlic, changing the cooking times, swapping out ingredients for ones she liked better. I still use and refer to these experiences when teaching classes that use our Cookery and Foodways collection. These books, magazines, and some personal papers, document so many personal and cultural experiences in some ways very like my own, and others very different; annotated by cooks and bakers engaged in the same process of personalizing and customizing recipes, just trying to get to the most delicious outcome – and in the process, spending time with loved ones.

One of the throughlines of the Cookery and Foodways collection and how I teach with it is the connections that food and national, cultural, racial, and ethnic identities, as well as systems of oppression, have to one another. Dr. Carol Helstosky’s Advanced Seminar on Food and Culture even uses some of these themes to focus student work; students are guided to collection materials that foreground food in the context of gender identity, a particular era (i.e. mid-century U.S.), cultural/national identity, war and conflict, specific/special diets, all as ways of understanding how food and cooking can serve as evidence of culture, society, and individual and community identity. Here, again, my own experiences and my family’s history inform how I think about and teach with the collection. Both sides of my family immigrated to the United States between the early 1800s and the beginning of the 20th century from Germany, France, Scotland, and Ireland, settling in Boston, Kentucky, Illinois, and Ohio. I spent a lot of my early life on a family farm in Kansas that my maternal great-grandmother and grandfather purchased in 1908; land that was allocated for sale to European settlers after being stolen from the Kaw, Kickapoo, Osage, Sioux, and Pawnee nations. Like many white people raised in the U.S., much of my nationally or ethnically specific family identity and culture was subsumed over time into the “melting pot” of 19th and 20th century U.S. culture, and I did not grow up being asked to reckon with and think about how to disrupt some of the harmful the systems I still materially benefit from. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I began to connect the land I had grown up on, which our family still owns and is currently leased to local farmers to grow a rotation of corn, soybeans, and clover, to the theft of land and genocide of Native Americans or the complexities of capitalism and agriculture and food production in 21st century America. Our “family farm” became so much more than that; in my mind, it became a microcosm of all of these different systems. This is the lens I try to bring to teaching about cooking and food when I work with classes.

Before she passed away, my mother created a custom, hand-lettered cookbook that included many of the recipes I’d grown up with. The dishes in it feel almost aggressively Midwestern – probably the cultural identity that resonates with me the most. The cookbook includes macaroni and cheese, brownies, carrot cake, peach pudding, apple pie, beef brisket, beef stew, corn bread, Jell-O, and seven-layer dip, aka the Midwestern version of “Tex-Mex,” so popular in mid-20th century white, middle-class U.S. cooking. I’ve added a recipe from my dad’s side of the family for Irish soda bread, one of the few food-related remnants of his Boston-Irish family. Some recipes I still make (apple pie, every Christmas), some I haven’t made in years and probably won’t without a lot of alterations or medications or both (the seven-layer dip and macaroni and cheese are both packed with dairy, which I can’t eat anymore). I look forward to continuing to make changes and updates to these recipes and to carry on my mother’s tradition of cooking as a way of spending time with people, both to cook them delicious food, and learning how to cook food they enjoy. I still enjoy cooking, and the photo in this article, which is also the photo on the cover of the cookbook she made for me, is how I still try to approach it – with a love of food, community, and not afraid of making a little bit of a mess.

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