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Ancestral Recipes

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

This time last year, I was looking for somewhere fun to take my sweetie Albert for his birthday. We ended up heading up to Chico for the World Music Festival there. It was a really fun weekend and I highly recommend the event for those who like diverse music and don't like huge crowds. It's smaller and more intimate than other festivals I've attended, and I really felt like I got to connect more with the performers, vendors, and other attendees.

While we were visiting for the festival, an open-air market was happening just outside of town in the more rural farming community where the almond growers make their trade. This was a proper "Hoes Down" kind of affair that felt like a throwback to the festivals of my youth in upstate New York, with folks selling their handmade quilts and rag rugs and knit items, jewel-toned jars of homemade jam and pickles, whimsical yard decor, and a classic car show. I grew up going to events like these in the rural areas around my small hometown of Olean. It was fun to touch that country energy again. Urban farmer's markets in the Bay Area, with highbrow marketing, rapid turnaround, thronging crowds and long lines, are fun and exciting, but they are not quite like these homespun, slow-moving events. Different birds altogether.

I passed a booth where an elderly man was selling a small selection of preserved foods: pickled peppers, beans, and cucumbers. I had been hoping to find a pickled bean vendor, as spicy dill beans are among my favorite snacks. I stepped in to the booth and inquired after a jar of beans: how much? Spicy or not?

The man looked up slowly. It took him a moment to answer, and when he did, his voice was tight. "Well, I don't know all the ingredients in those beans. I don't really know all what is in any of it." I stepped back a bit, surprised, and said, "I'm sorry?"

"Well," he said, "My wife made these last Fall. She died this year. Now I have to move out of our house, so I am here selling this stuff. It's all really good. I just can't eat it all before I go..." his voice trailed off.


Well, you know, I bought a jar of those beans. There was no way I couldn't, with a story like that. He didn't tell me the story so he could make a buck. This wasn't about that. He told me the story because it was the truth of his life and his loss, and there was a sense that pretty soon, stories would be all he had left.

Aren't stories all we actually ever have? Any item we have is actually only a symbol: the fruit of a labor, the story of a moment in someone's life.


The beans don't even taste all that good. They are tough and stringy, canned late in the season, not tender. I ate a couple, then gave up. They're sitting in my fridge right now. Call me sentimental, but I have not been able to bring myself to throw them out during any of my major kitchen cleaning sessions this past year.

Instead, at Samhain, I'll take them out to compost and ask that the spirit of this lady please not be offended. I'll tell her that I was glad to meet her husband and I hope he is well. I'll tell her that I hope they have a happy reunion when it is time. I never asked, and I wonder if somewhere, they have a son or daughter who is setting up this year's pickled beans.

Thinking about Ancestral Recipes, I am drawn to my cookbooks. I have three family recipe books. There is one that was passed down from my grandmother's oldest sister to her other sister to her other sister to my grandmother to my mom. In it, each one inscribed the words "Pray for me" under her name. I have the Meta Givens 2-volume set, and I have a cookbook that my mom put together for my sister, brother and I, with room in the back for our own recipes as well as some of our childhood favorites.

That last little book is lots of fun, as it reflects the diverse cultural heritage of my family. Right next to my deceased Grandmother's cole slaw recipe (be it known that my Grandmother and I share a love of cocktail olives in everything) is my Korean sister's recipe for Polish Lazy Golabki, the next page is my French-Canadian mother's recipe for Korean BBQ Bulgogi, and there are family recipes for Pineapple upside-down cake, tabbouleh, kim chee, Laotian soup, and babka. The Matthews Tribe is, literally, a one-family United Nations. Flipping through the book, I see a few recipes are missing, and I make a mental note to ask my mom about them when I am home next month.

I started thinking about all of this because I was doing a little bit of pickling this weekend. Here is the recipe for my refrigerator pickles that you can make very simply. Albert and I did some sweet and sour dill pickles, some blueberry jelly, and some jalapeno carrots. There is a shift happening in my life right now and my focus is going to more domestic considerations, like food prep, gardening, and my family. My store The Sacred Well is about to reach its five-year anniversary, and now that it is becoming more self-sufficient, I have a little more energy to direct inwards. So we built raised beds, planted lettuce, herbs, and veggies, and are doing some preserving. My friend and downstairs neighbor Rowan (who has also been canning like mad recently) noted mildly that we are, "homesteading." I see what she means in the feeling of it. I just put in a few pepper plants, and I'm excited to get some of my mom's hot pepper jelly going. 

How about you? Are you interested in sharing an Ancestral Recipe with me here? Leave it in the comments section. 

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  • Rose
    Rose Monday, 03 September 2012

    I wasn't blessed with a family food history. The only thing I remember from growing up was carrot cake in a bunny form, fried bologna and cheese, over cooked scrambled eggs and my personal all time favorite: oatmeal with butter, milk and sugar. My grandma canned, but wasn't a really creative cooker. Meat, potatoes and canned green beans with some bread and butter pickles and other pickled condiments on the side and bread and butter, were mainstays. I honestly don't remember anything but the carrot cake and making homemade noodles when it comes to my mother's cooking (NOT a domestic goddess.) The one "family" recipe I try to make every year in honor of my Irish roots is Kale, Parsnip and potato colcannon from an Irish cookbook I found online. It has tons of really old recipes, how to cook bread in a bastible and stores about most of the recipes. I found it on line this year and posted it on my timeline somewhere. I'd be happy to dig it up for you. It's the best friggin' "mashed potato" recipe EVAR. :D

  • Super User
    Super User Friday, 28 September 2012

    Rose- I would LOVE to see your Mashed Potato recipe :D

  • Amy McCune
    Amy McCune Monday, 03 September 2012

    Are you originally from Olean , NY? I'm from Derrick City, PA; right over the hill!

  • Super User
    Super User Friday, 28 September 2012

    Yes, indeed, Amy! In fact, I am headed that way next week for a visit. I'll say Hi to the Enchanted Mountains for you!

  • Natalie Reed
    Natalie Reed Tuesday, 04 September 2012

    Oh sure, make me cry at my desk at work!! Lovely story, thank you for sharing and for honoring the woman the way you did.

  • Anne Hendley
    Anne Hendley Thursday, 06 September 2012

    What a wonderful story! How special for you to honor his wife in such a way.
    I have found myself trying my hand at gardening and canning. I recently made Peach & Lemon marmalade and it turned out GREAT. Am planning on using some for gifts.
    I am also a certified medicinal herbalist and a reiki master. Maybe it goes with the territory.

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