A few weeks ago, my book club met to discuss And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II. We always choose a food theme to go with our book. Because no one was really interested in eating freeze dried foods from the army surplus store, we chose to make our grandmother’s favorite recipes. (Way more delicious!) When we met, we talked about the book, but our conversation quickly skewed toward our families. Making food for our friends that our grandmothers prepared for our families brought back so many memories. It revived a connection between the present and the past. We also talked a lot about the food itself. Mainly because it was all so tasty, but also because we noticed that the food told us a lot about our grandparents. Several of the recipes shared common ingredients – processed, canned or packaged foods. And some of them were regional dishes. The food squarely set our grandparents in a time and place.
Time and Place
This got me thinking about food and its links to preservation. Preservation is not just about sites or sights – smell and taste and even what you hear can all be an important part of “place.” (Check out Preservation in Pink’s great post on defining place here). Time and place, of course, are a familiar pairing in preservation discussions. We use it to talk about why something is where it is and why it looks the way it does. We also talk about a sense of place when advocating for historic preservation as a means of maintaining the identity of a community.
Food as a Link to Time and Place
Food, on the other hand, isn’t such a common theme in preservation. Food implements are – kitchen gadgets, sets of silver, fine china, etc. are often on display in historic house museums and are used to date historic sites when found by archeologists. These food related items can sometimes tell us a lot about the people who used them – their social status, economic status, cultural background, etc. Food says just as much about us – where we came from, where we are and the whole lot. Some tourist attractions have successfully combined history and food – Shaker Town of Pleasant Hill, Colonial Williamsburg, war reenactments, etc. Restaurants with long histories often advertise authentic regional cuisine to tourists as part of the local experience -you have to eat sour dough at Boudin in San Francisco, a slice of pizza from Lombardi’s in New York, a Kentucky Hot Brown at The Brown in Louisville. Food can be a tangible connection to the past and to a place. Should preservationists give food more thought?
Our Grandmothers’ Recipes
Three dishes that demonstrate the theme of food and heritage stood out to me at our book club meeting. Amanda’s grandmother’s transparent pie, my grandmother’s chicken casserole and Erin’s grandmother’s frozen fruit salad.
Like a pecan pie without the pecans, it is basically flour, butter, and sugar in a pie crust. It is a simple recipe made from pantry staples that tastes amazing. (Although, I would recommend only have a sliver because it incredibly rich!) This recipe was passed down to Amanda in a handwritten cookbook filled with family recipes that her grandmother made for her as gift. This recipe is one that her grandmother brought with her to Lexington from her hometown near Maysville, Kentucky. Maysville’s Magee’s Bakery is famous for its transparent pie (it’s a favorite of Maysville native, George Clooney – rumor has it he has them flown to his movie premiers).
Amanda’s grandmother was a member of the Army Signal Corps and worked in Lexington during the WWII. Her grandfather was in the military and landed in Normandy two days after the invasion.
My grandmother’s chicken casserole is made from a recipe that was probably developed in the 1950s or 1960s. Post WWII recipes are characterized by pre-packaged and processed foods. After the lean war years, companies rolled out all sorts of new time-savers to help the homemaker including new appliances and convenience foods. The main ingredients here are canned cream of mushroom soup and boxed stuffing mix. I realize this sounds disgusting, but the empty dish at the end of book club can attest that it is quite tasty!
I forgot to take a photo of any of the food before we dug in and unfortunately I couldn’t find a photo that resembled my grandmother’s recipe online. But I was able to hunt up some photos of the dishes she used to prepare and serve her chicken casserole. She baked her specialty in a 1970s L’Eschalote Corningware casserole dish and served it on 1970s pyrex dishes. Just as fine china or not so fine china can provide clues to a family’s background at an archeological dig, these kitchen choices are also a clue. Corningware and Pyrex were pretty typical of middle class America in the ’70s.
My grandmother was a homemaker during the war. My grandfather, unable to enlist because of partial deafness, built LST warships in Evansville, IN during the war.
Frozen Fruit Salad
Erin’s grandmother’s frozen fruit salad is another simple recipe – a tub of Cool Whip, a can of pineapple tidbits, and cherry pie filling. Mix and freeze. It’s that simple. It’s also simply scrumptious! Who knew!?
If I had to guess, I would say this recipe was developed some time in the late 1960s (Mad Men fans will remember the Cool Whip pitch from last season – “Just taste it!”) or early ’70s. The processed food trend that began in the 1950s continued through the 60s and 70s.
Erin’s grandparents were still in school during the war, but her grandfather’s older brother died in combat. Erin’s grandmother never lost the thriftiness she learned during the war – she saved and reused everything!
Preparing our grandmother’s recipes not only reconnected us to our pasts and our families’ pasts, but sharing the recipes with each other allowed us to share our grandparents’ stories – stories that probably would not have been shared otherwise. It also brought us back to post-WWII America – the changes in food and culture and even politics.
These recipes connected us to a time and a place and to each other. And for a preservationist, that is food for thought.