Food has the power to bring people together across generations, cultures and beliefs. Food also has the power to transport us around the world, and back in time. I spent this summer exploring vintage recipes from America’s past, from the 1940’s through the 1980’s. It was interesting to learn about food shortages, war rations, and political food activism through recipes. And of course, it was super delicious! If only history class in school involved food… After exploring USA’s past, I wanted to look inward into my own family’s past, through the lens of recipes. My family hails from a wide array of countries, and these recipes I share are from my family’s roots. They have provided me the incredible opportunity to peak into their lives and cultures.
My Grandma immigrated to the U.S. when she married my Grandpa. When they were only twenty years old, they had to learn how to be married, how to raise babies, and how to communicate, since my Grandma hardly knew any English.
My Grandma is one of my heroes today – she is so kind and generous. You will never leave her dinner table hungry. And you’ll never leave her home without armfuls of food, clothing and other goodies. She is also one of the most brave and resilient women I know. She comes from a generation and a culture that respects their elders and provides for their family, regardless of the personal sacrifice required. And boy can she cook! I have loved her Korean beef bulgogi ever since I was a kid. Since bulgogi is sweet, I remember her telling me it was like “candy” as she would cook the thin slices on the stove. And I love it when she adds the bulgogi with rice and gochujang stuffed into lettuce “taco” shells!
My Grandpa is part French and part Irish. His last name is from France, although the spelling was changed when the first LaMora immigrated from France. When I was in high school, I went on a cross-country road trip with my Grandma and Grandpa LaMora from Oregon to my Grandpa’s cousin’s home in upstate New York.
We stopped in Watertown, NY, the small town in which my Grandpa grew up. He showed me the house that he lived in with his brother and mom, where rooms were rented out to earn extra income. And we toured the fire station where my Grandpa’s dad worked before he died in a traffic accident on the back of the fire truck. My Grandpa’s daughter (hi, mom!) became fluent in French during high school.
France is known for rich savory dishes as well as delicate sweet pastries. These French chocolate macarons tell of a country made of the finer things in life, with an emphasis on perfection and enjoyment, like my Grandpa’s life.
To explore my Grandpa’s other side of the family, I made Irish soda bread. I never met my Grandpa’s dad, but I am grateful that I got to spend cherished time with my Grandpa’s mom. She was known as Granny to me and my cousins. She had a spitfire spirit that could never be tamed! Granny smoked like she was on fire and drank like she was trying to put it out. She loved to gamble and have fun. In fact, we buried her with a deck of playing cards and a bottle of whiskey.
Granny and I would have sleepovers, just the two of us and her pesky cat, screwy Louie. At night we would each spend hours on our latch hook projects and chit chat. In the mornings we would binge-watch Price is Right. She had a hard life, and she didn’t get along great with many people. But I hope that her irrepressible spirit passed on to me. As an homage to her life that was full of tribulations and triumphs, I made Irish soda bread. While most people pass this bread off as bland, it truly has an unmatched depth of enjoyment, just like Granny.
My Grandma on my Dad’s side was one of the most poised and classy ladies I have ever known. She loved the finer things in life such as attending the opera and the symphony. She wasn’t the best cook, but then again, her family came from England, so her recipe repertoire consisted of chicken liver, chicken hearts, and over-cooked vegetables (according to my dad.) Of course, not everything from England is bad! Bangers and mash are quite tasty. And pasties are the most genius invention ever – it’s a handheld pie for every occasion!
While she may not have possessed exquisite skill in the kitchen, she was particularly gifted at pastels, calligraphy and paper crafts. My Grandma would handmake all of her cards for birthdays, Christmas, etc. from recycled wrapping paper. And I have two of her pastel pieces hanging in my home, including one she personally made just for me when I was in middle school.
While my Grandma’s dad was from England, her mom was from Sweden. Now, my Grandma loved tea time and Alice in Wonderland way more than anything Scandinavian. I honestly didn’t even know I was part Swedish until my Dad told me for the purpose of research for this post!
Thankfully my sister-in-law has strong Swedish roots. Her family cooks a giant Swedish meal including homemade meatballs, a special gravy sauce, steamed beets, rice pudding and mashed potatoes each year on Christmas Eve. And EVERYTHING gets doused in lingonberry jam, which is like a way better version of cranberry sauce. So I am pretty confident that meatballs with mashed potatoes and gravy counts as a “Swedish meal”.
My Grandpa on my Dad’s side joined the army towards the end of World War II. And my Grandpa’s Dad (my great-grandpa) fought in World War I. When the army gave my great-grandpa money to go home, he faced a decision. Go home to Slovenia and work on his father’s farm for the rest of his life… or take the money and leave for the promised land of America. He wrote a letter back home saying good-bye forever and he took off for a new world across the other side of the globe. He began working in a coal mine in Montana and eventually made his way to Centralia, Washington to start his own farm. I baked some of these traditional Slovenian Easter buns back in the spring. They are like heartier hot cross buns, full of dried fruit and nuts. Maybe because the Slovenians are a hearty crowd of folks? 💙
Germany – Rote-Bete-Gemüse
My paternal Grandpa’s mom came from Germany, back when it was part of the Austria-Hungarian empire. My family and I had the privilege of living in Germany for about five years. Therefore, I’d probably say that I’m most “in touch” with my German roots, since I grew up in the culture and language from first grade through sixth grade. And while schnitzel and beer are popular in Germany, an underrated yet ultimately delicious German food is beets! Beets are eaten all over Germany, both in their root form and as sugar. Stewed beets are also popular and the recipes are as varied as the people who eat this dish.
This particular recipe for Rote-Bete-Gemüse was adapted from a book my mom gave me called, “German Cooking Today“. Perhaps my great-grandma made a dish similar to this for her family? I used the beet root, leaves and stems in this dish, for extra nutrition and fiber. No need to let those perfectly edible and delicious parts of the vegetable go to the trash!
I hope you enjoyed this journey with me through recipes from my family’s roots. I thoroughly enjoyed all the dishes I made. It brought a sense of purpose and belonging to my kitchen. Cooking with methods passed down through my family helped put intention behind the foods I chose to nourish my body. I hope you get to try a few of these recipes, as well as recipes from your own family’s roots!
Rote-Bete-Gemüse (German Beet Dish)
- 2 pounds beets (with the leaves and stems if possible)
- 4 Tbsp butter, divided
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp ground pepper
- ½ tsp paprika
- 1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
- 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
- 5 ounces turkey bacon or vegan bacon
- ¼ cup chopped green onions or chives
- Wash the beets as well as the attached stems and leaves. Peel the beets. Slice each beet into ¼-inch thick slices or thinner. Finely dice the stems and roughly chop the leaves.
- Melt two tablespoons of the butter in a medium sauce pan on medium heat. Add the sliced beets along with the salt, pepper and paprika. Sauté for about five minutes.
- Add the stock and bring everything to a simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the beets are easily pierced with a fork.
- While the beets are simmering, heat the remaining two tablespoons of butter in a large pan. Add the diced onion along with the diced beet stems and chopped beet leaves. Sauté everything until the onions are translucent, after about 10 minutes.
- Drain any remaining liquid in the sauce pan with the beets. Add the sautéed onions and beet stems & leaves to the sliced beets. In the now empty pan, fry the bacon a few minutes on each side, until crispy. Dice the bacon and add it on top of the vegetables.
- Top everything with chopped green onions or chives. Enjoy!