What food do you identify with as part of your family history? It may be something that connects to a country or culture. Perhaps it is a favorite food your family always made at Christmas. We all speak the universal language of food – so exploring some ways to use it to connect to our heritage is a worthy endeavor.
In this guest post series, Sarah Arnoff Yeomanm, photographer and creator of The Family Cookbook, shares her thoughts and experiences about food and family history. In part 2 of this series, Sarah will give us three tips for making our own family cookbook.
If you’ve ever been momentarily transported to another place and time after smelling or tasting a certain food, you know just how deep a connection to food can be. Whether we remember sitting with our families for an everyday meal, being in the kitchen creating delicious dishes, or gathering together for special occasions, we all have memories intertwined with food.
Food is one of those strange pieces of our identities that is both tangible and intangible. We of course can cook our favorite meals whenever we please, but the way these dishes express our stories and heritage is a little tricky to explain sometimes. Over the course of my career photographing families and creating custom cookbooks, I’ve talked to so many families who cherish their food heritage but feel as if the wider world just doesn’t quite understand why preserving these traditions is important. To many, food is just food.
For me, food was the most solid way to connect with my roots on the Jewish side of the family. While most of my relatives lived close together in Southern California, I grew up in a small Utah town far away from traditions in a place that isn’t exactly known for thriving Jewish culture. My dad would make the few dishes he knew and I’d get fed well when relatives visited, so for the most part, my Jewish identity was completely rooted in food.
When I started The Family Cookbook, the idea was to document family food stories and preserve food traditions in an ever-changing modern landscape. There wasn’t really an intention to reflect on my own food identity or the heritage I come from. But as I started working with Jewish families in Portland, Oregon, where I live now, I was introduced to the vastness of family dishes that were eerily similar to the ones I knew, but they were also different. They had similar ingredients, but different stories and evolutions–we can all make latkes but I will never be able to make latkes like the Orthodox mom with six kids or the 80-year-old great-grandma who has been cooking since birth (I will probably never even make them like my own great-grandma did).
Food is a form of living storytelling because it is constantly changing with each new generation, but also stays rooted in its origins. The idea that we are making something that our grandma’s grandma’s grandma made is a deep form of connection that is, again, both tangible and intangible. And it doesn’t matter if you are making WWI-era cookies or a stew whose techniques can be traced back centuries. We all have a food heritage that affects who we are today, and it’s worth taking the time to write down record, or at least actively remember the stories associated with those dishes.
Thanks, Sarah, for telling us more about your experience. Stay tuned for part two where Sarah will give us three tips for creating our own heirloom cookbooks.
Sarah Arnoff Yeoman is a photographer and the creator of The Family Cookbook co where she travels the country creating heirloom cookbooks for families who want to preserve their food traditions. She lives in Oregon with her husband, overweight cat, and a couple of old fig trees.