[Sca-cooks] Meanderings on family histories and foods, was, Re: Packing from the Nimatnama

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Fri May 18 04:15:39 PDT 2007

On May 18, 2007, at 12:42 AM, Susan Fox wrote:

> As long as we are comparing notes... I give thanks to my  
> grandfather and his
> brothers for translating the surname to the English version FOX  
> because the
> German FUCHS was going to cause all their descendants Nothing But  
> Trouble.
> Apparently, they knew the Important words in English.  <grin>

I think the ultimate one of those (and I'd call it apocryphal  
although I know someone who swears it is the literal truth as it  
applies to an ancestor of his -- but it's probably one of those  
stories we all wish we could tell) concerns somebody with a name like  
Andreas Grubensteiner, or some such, receiving careful instruction on  
what to say to the guy at the desk when he says in English, "What is  
your name?" -- "He's going to ask you your name: 'What is your name,'  
he'll say, and then _you_ say, 'Andreas Grubensteiner'." At the front  
of the line, the man says, "What is your name?", Andreas says,  
"Schon, ich vergesse!", meaning, essentially, "Jeez, I forgot  
already???", and the man at the desk writes down, "Sean... Ferguson..."

> Cookery content:  I wish I had more recipes from that end of the  
> family.  My
> brother seems to be the appointed Guardian of the Genealogy in our
> generation, so I'll have to ask him to quiz the aunties for the  
> important
> recipes.  My father made up his own Specialities.

I think, deep down, there are two (or more) kinds of people when it  
comes to preserving the old recipes of their childhood and ancestors.  
Not everybody is too keen on remembering exactly what grandma cooked  
with such love, and not all grandmas were good cooks, even the ones  
who cooked with such love. Not to mention the ones who may not have ;-).

My mother is a good cook, but appears to be mostly self-taught via  
trial and error, and cookbooks, and seems most skilled with things  
like cakes, pies, Stollen, things like that. There are only a few,  
maybe two or three, other dishes she ever cooked that we ever had any  
reason to believe was something she remembered and loved from  
childhood, and even those I seem to recall not liking very much on  
those rare occasions we were served them as kids -- things like  
sliced, boiled eggs reheated in cream sauce, which I gather is  
something you might find 20th-century Catholics of German ancestry  
eating on a Friday in Lent, and from which we used to recoil in  
terror. OTOH, we have an anecdotal account of a fairly similar milk- 
and-cream-based noodle soup (butter and pepper added to taste at the  
table) which sounds like it might be sublime if made with good  
ingredients. This also sounds like it might easily be 19th-20th- 
century German Lenten (but for all I know, maybe even medieval  
German). Then there were the inevitable liver and onions, liver and  
bacon, and, of course, for variety, chicken livers with scrambled  
eggs... my mom still loves this one, can't get it in a restaurant,  
and can't find anyone else who wants to eat it, so never eats it  
unless I come over and cook it for her as a treat.

Even more distressingly sketchy is the single dish my father used to  
speak of with some fondness from his childhood, which was some kind  
of filled pasta turnover, like a cheese pirog or ravioli-like unit,  
known as pig's ears. I don't know if there's a German name for this,  
but I assume it's from that tradition. My grandmother had been born  
in an ethnically German town which was actually in what is now modern  
Hungary, not far from the Romanian border -- we used to joke, behind  
her back, about being descended from Transylvanians and/or gypsies,  
or both, because had she heard such jokes, she would have been  
absolutely Not Amused. It turns out, though, that German communities  
were, and still are, scattered all over Central Europe, well outside  
of the modern German and Austrian borders, including Transylvania.

I think that there are people for whom food, beyond basic survival,  
isn't all that important as a cultural yardstick, and for some,  
looking back at what we might assume to be the beloved foods of their  
childhood might necessitate opening some doorways they may not want  
to step back through. Which is sad, but I'm not convinced everybody  
really wants to preserve Grandma Hilda's Pork-Nostril And Lemur-Elbow  
Stew Just As It Was Generations Ago.

When I got to know more about my wife's family, I found much the same  
story: there were some much-loved family and childhood dishes my wife  
desperately wanted to learn to reproduce perfectly, but it's hard to  
get my mother-in-law to talk much about her own childhood, so we  
really don't know much at all about what she ate as a child. I guess  
not everyone handles the Immigration Thing in the same way, and for  
everyone who treasures the Traditional Family Pasta Sauce and wants  
to pass it on to the kids, there may be another who'd Just Rather Not  
Talk About It. My father-in-law would never speak with fondness of  
anything he ate in his youth apart from the abundant seafoods of the  
New York area, and corned beef, for which he acquired a taste (along  
with Silvercup white bread) in the US Army. My mother-in-law was  
never allowed to cook this last for him, but, mysteriously, I was,  
probably because I was an exotic, real, live, half-Irishman. I  
suppose being sent from your homeland as a child because everyone is  
starving, can do that to you.

On the plus side, it's fairly amusing to walk through the produce  
markets in New York's Chinatown with my mother-in-law, listening to  
her comment on all the things that are trendy and high-priced now  
(things like pea shoots, or Hong Toy/Hollow-Stemmed-Vegetable/ 
Amaranth/Chinese Mallows), that she used to feed to the pigs when she  
was a girl... listening to her, I gather the pigs ate very well,  
indeed, but I suspect this is not central to the message that is  
being sent ;-).


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