Folk: Holding to the traditions of our mothers

One of my Christmas presents from my parents was a copy of The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of essays by Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. It’s a fantastic read. Steingarten mixes personal essay with food, science, travel and recipe writing in a way that’s informative, provocative, sensual and hilarious.

I had read several of the essays before, but had somehow missed that Steingarten has a Mormon connection — his wife was raised in the faith and culture.

Of course, it’s easy to for me to pinpoint why — all is revealed in the chapter titled “The Smith Family Fruitcake.”

I don’t eat fruitcake.

Steingarten loves it — a fact he attributes to not tasting it until he was 18 (his family is Jewish), and to the Smith family fruitcake. The best, he claims, was Aunt Marjorie’s (based on recipe created by Aunt Esther in Twin Falls), but Aunt Vivian’s — which she would send every year wrapped in a copy of the Deseret News — was also good. He also gives shout outs to Aunt Melva’s taffy, Aunt Frances’s jam and Aunt Evelyn’s butter mints, cookies and fudge.

I was enjoying reading someone of his talent and humor take on Mormon cuisine (such that it is).

But then Steingarten writes:

“”¦as the years pass and Christmases come and go like clockwork, fewer of my wife’s relations are able to bake as much as they would like, and most of the younger generation seems more skilled with the can opener than the canning jar. Marjorie and Aunt Vivian kept the fruitcakes coming until the end”¦” (398).

This, dear readers, should not be. I say it’s time to broaden our understanding of the spirit of Elijah. Yes, journals, written and oral histories, photos, genealogies and eternal covenants are important. But how much more would we feel connected to our ancestors if we didn’t confine them solely to text and image?

What happens when our daily practices — our material life, our life with materials — is suffused with their spirit, with the way they do/did things?

Let’s find out. I propose that all of us seek out our mothers — especially our aunts, great aunts and grandmothers — and learn from them whatever it is they do best. Not only cooking, but quilting, gardening, sewing — all the practices that arose out of gospel teachings, pioneer heritage and the conditions of life and history. I’m talking in particular here about the practices of Mormons in the Intermountain West, but certainly this is something anyone could do no matter his or her background.

And I don’t think it’s enough to call up and ask for the recipe. Often what makes a particular dish great are the little things that recipes can’t really capture. Get into the kitchen with your Great Aunt Martha and take copious notes of how she does things (especially how she measures and mixes — oftentimes the difference between packing the cup of brown sugar or not can lead to widely different results).

Some of this knowledge has already passed away. I vaguely recall hearing that a cousin of mine knew how to my Great Aunt Grace’s legendary divinity (of which I have often heard, but never remember tasting). But it’s not too late. Mormon cuisine is basically the food of the 1950s with a few traces of pioneer times. Those with this knowledge are still around.

And I don’t mean this to be some sort of ironic, post-ironic, kitsch project. It’s not hipsters learning to knit or crochet.

All I’m saying is this: let’s not forget the traditions of our mothers.

14 thoughts on “Folk: Holding to the traditions of our mothers”

  1. Amen, and Amen.

    My father’s mother passed away when I was only eleven. My father remembered several special foods from his youth, but had never gotten recipes for them from his mother (she cooked by taste and smell, and from memory). It has taken him years to re-create some of those dishes. Others are still lost, likely never to be recovered.


    Posted by Pat Eyler

  2. Well done, William. Food is a significant part of my family culture. My parents have a huge garden and the preservation of its bounty is a sacrement of sorts. It has only been in the last couple of years that we have started to do the same…freezer jam.

    There is the legend of my great uncle’s ham. He died with the knowledge. 

    Posted by J. Stapley

  3. Bravo, William; an excellent post. Traditions have be lived, practical things–otherwise, they’re just quaint sociological totems, factoids that people point to in order to convince themselves that they’ve made a connection across time. Passing down actual practices, whether recipes or anything else….that’s a connection that doesn’t have to be fetishized and displayed, because it’s obvious. 

    Posted by Russell Arben Fox

  4. One of my great…grandfathers was candy maker to the queen of England, and he brought his candy molds to the US when he emigrated in the 1800s with the Latter-day Saints. My grandmother has the original molds from which she has made aluminium copies for each of her children. Making hard candy animals (including dogs, rabbits, men on horseback, reindeer, clocks, and teapots) has been a family tradition each Christmas in my house and in those of my relatives.

    Posted by Jenny Brunner

  5. Last spring, my two young daughters and I accompanied my mother as she video-taped my great-aunt Phyllis as she made several cookie recipes that were passed down from my great-grandmother make. I’d heard the names of these cookies all my life, and it was so interesting to see her make them. They did not please my daughters taste buds, (nor mine to tell the truth- I never imagined ‘Vanilla Sticks” to be mostly ground nuts). But the experience was sweet. 

    Posted by claire

  6. Jenny Bruner, we should have a candy-off! My ggg-grandfather was confectioner to the Emperor of Austria, and I have his recipes (though no candy molds…that might give you the advantage).

  7. As a convert to the church I’ve stood all amazed at the awe-inspiring multi-generation Mormon family networks I’ve seen and the traditions that seem to tumble out of their everyday existence like fruit and vegetables from a cornucopia. But also as a convert I stand at the turn of the tide in my own family line. The same with my husband; for both of us, conversion means breaking with less nourishing traditions in our family history and trying to establish new ones, at times from scratch.

    My own grandmother on my father’s side had very … shall we say, strong philosophies … about food. An incorrigible bigot, she asserted that Italians loaded their food with drugs and booze and that other ethnic culinary traditions were likewise corrupt. We took to calling her the Nazi Grandma even before we discovered (after he death) she had been a card carrying member of the Cumberland Gap Ladies of the KKK. As such, her favorite cookbook may have been this  one.

    It was a very great disappointment to her that 1) I persisted in my membership in the LDS Church and 2) that I married a man with a Greek surname.

    Some of us want to forget  the traditions of our mothers, with good reason! Thank goodness, though, that in some church families we converts can see patterns and traditions that suggest promise and bounty for our own (comparatively) newly nascent covenant family lines.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  8. Well, Patty, we  are more than grateful that you persisted and that you married. And our mothers need not be literal. We converts need not be ashamed to absorb and hand down the genuine culture, food culture and otherwise, that the Saints developed in Utah–and, of course, there is no real handing down that isn’t also an augmentation.

    And someone does not like fruit cake? How is that possible? The only possible explanations must be because he’s never eaten the real stuff. Or that early training on bad fruit cake has pyschologically scarred him against all fruit cake.  

    Posted by Jim F

  9. Jim, I suppose one way we converts can understand our position in our family histories is to say that, spiritually speaking, we’re setting out for a wholly different familial frontier, one that places us on the pioneering end of the story. But it’s nice to be able to pick up a few “genuine” traditions here and there from established families and to not wind up reinventing the wheel every step of the way.

    Fruitcake–such a touchy subject! I don’t even wanna go there. IMO in raising the issue William showed wreckless courage.


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  10. Shoot. My response was more fun before I saw your correction. Now the only thing I can ask is “Can there be genuine courage without heed?” That is more sensible, but less fun.

  11. I love this post; it pretty much defines how I’ve lived my life. I would be an entirely different person without the influences of my two grandmothers.

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