Archive for the ‘FAMILY HISTORY’ Category

Preserving Holiday Food Traditions

December 8, 2013

Food traditions often linger longer in families and communities than any other custom. And there is no better time than the holiday season to celebrate old recipes!

Norwegian cookies

I recently taught a workshop designed to help people who want to capture and preserve their own family, ethnic, or community recipes, and was reminded just how precious family recipes are.

Food Traditions Class

After spending the day discussing and writing about food traditions, we shared a meal.

If you are also thinking about creating a family cookbook (or otherwise preserving and sharing treasured recipes), I hope that the following action plan will help focus your thoughts.


What family/community recipes, artifacts, photos, etc. do you have?

Who else might have additional family artifacts?

Who else in your family might have helpful skills?

Do you need to interview any relatives?


This was one of my grandmother’s favorites.


Scan/duplicate what you can

Photograph what you can’t

Store copies in secure location

Clean, stabilize, and store fragile pieces based on professional guidelines, or with professional assistance

Darlene textile

Darlene Fossum-Martin (Education Specialist at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum) demonstrates rolling, instead of folding, an old textile.




Other family/community members

Darlene cutting cookies

Who has family recipes, photos, artifacts, and expertise?


Scope – What recipes do you wish to preserve?

Intended audience – Are you doing this for everyone in your family? Your children? Your community? Ethnic group?

What will be shared – Recipes as written? Updated recipes? Family photos? Food photos? Stories? Family tree? Poems, essays, or other personal/creative writing?

Tone – Do you want to preserve only happy memories? Or is it important to share stories of family conflict?


Do you want to record that the choice of pie was a cause of family discord, or simply record the recipes?


Cookbooks are only one option. You might also create a recipe card packet, booklet, glossy book, scrapbook, calendar, notecards, blog, etc., etc.  (Here’s an example of a blog post I wrote about one of my favorite family recipes.)

No matter how you choose to go about it, preserving family food traditions is a wonderful thing to do!

Holiday Food Traditions Class – You’re Invited!

September 8, 2013

I am very excited about a weekend workshop I’m teaching this fall, Holiday Food Traditions:  Remembering, Writing, Tasting, Sharing. The class is scheduled Nov. 1-3, 2013  (Fri. from 6:00-8:30, Sat. and Sun. from 9:00-5:00) in Decorah, in northeast Iowa.

Precious family stories are often shared around the table, and many involve favorite recipes. This holiday season, treat yourself to a special weekend designed to help you recall, record, and celebrate food traditions from your family or community. Tattered recipe cards can lead to reminiscences, poetry, scrapbook pages, family cookbooks…the possibilities are endless, and the results make perfect gifts.


I’m teaching this class at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, but you do not need to be of Norwegian descent to participate!  This will be an easy-going weekend intended to help capture and share some food memories in whatever form works best for you.

The workshop includes fun, reflective, and imaginative writing activities. You’ll also enjoy baking demonstrations of favorite traditional Scandinavian Christmas goodies, as well as advice about preserving and protecting kitchen heirlooms. You’ll leave with some holiday treats, a finished scrapbook page, and lots of creative ideas for turning recipes and memories into cherished family gifts.


I’m team-teaching the workshop with Darlene Fossum-Martin. Darlene’s cooking style is shaped by the Norwegian cuisine of her ancestors. Although she holds a degree in home economics and education, her strengths in cooking come from the women in her family. Darlene has taught traditional Scandinavian food classes for adults and children of all ages throughout the Midwest and at John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina.

Darlene and Kathleen

You may know me, but if not – I‘m the author of twenty-five books, including the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series for adults and historical novels for young readers. I’ve taught writing at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Mount Mary College, and many conferences and workshops. I’ve also spent thirty years exploring and writing about food heritage and traditions.  During my decade as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum, I coordinated the historic foodways program for different ethnic groups represented in fourteen period kitchens. I trained museum staff in foodways traditions and techniques, and often wrote about food history for professional publications.

Can you join us in Decorah?  Here’s everything you need to know:

Level of instruction: All levels. Youth ages 14-17 signed up with a participating adult receive a 25% discount.

Dates: The class is scheduled Nov. 1-3, 2013  (Fri. from 6:00-8:30, Sat. and Sun. from 9:00-5:00) at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, in northeast Iowa.

Cost:  $148 Vesterheim members / $198 non-members.  There will be an ingredients fee.

Registration:  You’ll find registration information and forms on Vesterheim’s website.

If you have questions, please call Darlene, Vesterheim’s Education Specialist, at 563-382-9681, Ext. 215.

 vesterheim cookies



A Single Candle

December 30, 2012

Earlier this month I wrote about the 23,000 candles lit at the Antietam National Battlefield’s Memorial Illumination each December. Today I’m writing about a single flame.

My mother’s parents always burned a bayberry candle on Christmas eve, a symbol of good luck for the coming year. My mom maintained the tradition. When I was a kid, she used a star-shaped glass candleholder. My sisters and I went to bed before the candle burned down, but when I was young, finding the molded wax in the morning was part of the fun.


The tradition dates back to colonial times.  Candles made from waxy bayberries smelled better than common tallow candles.  The tapers also burned more slowly.  Because so many berries were needed to make candles, bayberry tapers were a luxury.  Many families saved theirs to burn on Christmas or New Year’s eve.  Some may have recited this common rhyme:   “A bayberry candle burned to the socket, will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket.”  (Source unknown.)

My mom’s family has roots on the east coast going back to the 1600s. I like to wonder how many generations in the chain have kept this tradition going.

Because Scott and I often travel over the holidays, we haven’t developed any rituals of our own. My mom and her husband Tom still observe the tradition of burning a bayberry candle each December, though. We usually aren’t with them, and the candleholder isn’t the same one we used decades ago; still, I like knowing that each year, the flame is once again lit and the new year ushered in properly.

I wish you all the peace of the season and the simple joy of honoring family traditions. May a shining light lead you through the new year!

A World War II Holiday Prayer

December 30, 2011

I spent Christmas with my mom this year, and she shared a memory I hadn’t heard before.  While growing up in Absecon, New Jersey, she sang in the children’s choir at the Methodist Church.  In 1942, the choir director wrote new lyrics set to the tune of “White Christmas:”

While round the world the guns thunder,
Death drops from under hostile wings –
Here in God’s dwelling
Where we hear swelling
The voice of every child who sings –
Then let us ask the dear Father
To bless and guide each soldier son –
Let us raise our voices as one
In a prayer that war will soon be done!

The congregation dates back to a Methodist Revival held in the area in the late 1700s.  The original structure from the 1820s was replaced in 1856.  I haven’t been there, but illustrations show a gracious building, remodeled several times over the years.  I love the image of the young people singing earnestly in the candle-lit church, hoping and praying for peace in the new year.

This sketch was made in 1960 by E.O. Nielsen.

I hope the coming year brings peace to more people around the globe, and I wish you and yours a wonderful 2012!