Think back over the decades and, chances are, food and cooking play a big part in your memories. Events such as weddings, christenings and even a humble tea around the kitchen table are part of the fabric of family life. Things were no different for our ancestors, wherever they lived and whatever their circumstances, and you can bring your research to life by finding out more about the foods that your ancestors would have eaten and the recipes they might have used.
Discovering old recipes, and even perhaps cooking them in the modern day is a great way to find out about traditions, regional food variations and what sort of food was available in a particular era. Events such as rationing, the changing seasons and even the weather could affect what food was available; something which is easy to forget in this age of 24-hour supermarkets and international cuisine.
How to get started
The ideal find for family historians is an heirloom hand-written recipe book containing recipes collected by family members over the years. However, for those of us not lucky enough to possess such a treasure, there are plenty of other options.
If you own old commercially produced recipe books previously used by an older family member, be sure to check through the pages carefully, as some cooks wrote notes beside well-loved recipes, perhaps suggesting alternative ingredients or even noting events at which a particular recipe was used.
Interpreting recipe books
Don’t worry if your quest for personal family recipes isn’t as fruitful as you hoped; old recipe books provide plenty of information on what our ancestors would have been cooking and baking. Two long-lived and widely-read such volumes are Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and The Be-Ro Book, both of which have been reprinted dozens of times over the decades.
Each of these books, which can be obtained from online booksellers or second-hand bookshops, contains family recipes using ingredients which were in widespread use at the time of publication. The cooking methods, preparation details and notes on how to serve the food are a fascinating glimpse into kitchen life in years gone by.
The internet is a great source of old family recipes, with thousands of enthusiasts sharing their recipes and tips. You could search for recipes that you remember from your own childhood, or dishes which feature in family folklore. Even if you have just a rough idea of what ingredients would have been included, you might strike lucky and find the dish online.
Look for websites with connections to the regions where your ancestors lived; there are hundreds of American sites featuring international recipes from the homeland of those who emigrated to the US and wanted to keep a taste of home.
Enjoy taking a trip into your family’s culinary past and be sure to keep your own favourite recipes for future generations to enjoy.
Historic recipe websites
- Pinterest - Heirloom recipes and ideas for organising your old recipes
- Recipes Past and Present – A community website with recipes from Victorian times to the 1970s
- Old and Vintage Cook Books – Over 4,000 old cookbooks for sale
Find out more about the lives and times of your ancestors in every issue of Family Tree magazine.
(Image © Tuck DB Postcards)