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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Food, Memories, and Ancestors

Christmas Eve in Napa, California found my family gracing the house of my great grandparents (Mary and Herb Borchers).  They lived up in Alta Heights on Willow Avenue in a house that had been built by Mary's brother, J.H. Vienop.  We'd show up there just after dinner at my grandparents' (Dick and Dorothy Flanagan) house.

Dessert in the form of cookies awaited us.  Mary spent many hours baking traditional German cookies that I'm sure her own mother, other family members, and church friends handed down over the years.  While they lived in the United States and Mary had been born in Missouri, they kept a tight knit community with their other German immigrant friends.

We all have our food memories, one of mine stands out in the form of these lovingly crafted cookies and pastries.  The smell, taste, and texture of a Springerle can place me right back in the dining room of my great grandparents' home.  Food has this extraordinary ability of bringing back memories that don't just involve eating but people, at setting, and family.  It truly triggers memories, feelings and emotions from my childhood.

I found the following quote online:  "Over time, food abundance has become a vehicle for memory enhancement at the cultural level. Feasts serve not only an abundance of food but an abundance of memories." -- John S. Allen.  This is so true.

While I am mostly of Irish decent (about 70%), it is my German family that I spent my time with growing up. In fact, it is all of their food (which from my standpoint was always delicious as can be) that I ate.  It is my German heritage that lives on strong in me because of the food that I grew up with.  Sorry to my Irish heritage but most of the food just pales in comparison and there is not much variety.  I do have a pretty great Irish soda bread recipe though.

The following list are the cookies and pastries of my Christmas past and present:

-Lebkuchen
-Thumbprint Cookies
-Ice Box Cookies
-Pfeffernusse
-Springerle Cookies
-Stollen
-Sugar Cookies
-Persimmon Pudding
-Persimmon Bread
-Persimmon Cookies
-Fudge
-Rocky Road
-Mincemeat Cookies

Many of these are German in origin.  Of course, Lebkuchen, Pfeffernusse, Springerle, and Stollen are cookies and pastries made even today in Germany during the holiday season.  What surprised me was when I looked up Thumbprint and Ice Box cookies.  I found they too are German in origin.  Now, the persimmon seems to be more of a North American fruit that originated in the orient. 

Given that my ancestors made their way to California, specifically Napa, makes me think they came upon persimmon recipes when they migrated West.  Napa, California and many places in California are riddled with persimmon trees.  These trees reap a harvest in late Fall when the trees are bare of leaves and rather stark looking, yet have orange ornaments of almost ripe fruit still hanging from the branches.

Yet another surprise was the sugar cookie recipe.  I know that sugar cookie recipes are a dime a dozen.  Some are easy to make while others require quite a bit of work.  My family's sugar cookie recipe includes lard and soured cream.  When I found this recipe online, the title was indicated as the "Heirloom Sugar Cookie Recipe" and stated it was an old German cookie recipe.  My suspicions on that cookie were founded.  For years, I have wondered if my great grandma's sugar cookies were German in origin.  It would appear they are but also known in other countries, too.

My grandma's fudge recipe is probably over 50 years and is indicated as "See's Fudge".  When I looked up rocky road candy, I found that it originated with a Russian immigrant to the United States.  As for mincemeat cookies, those appear to be English in origin.

Whatever the treat, and probably especially the treat if you have a bit of sweet tooth, memories abound.  Not only are our eyes, noses, and tongues attached to our appetites (our stomachs), they are also attached to our memories (our minds and hearts).

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