The World Was Your Ancestor’s Oyster: Food in Family History

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explores one of her many interests: the connection of food and cooking to family history, revealing how much oysters were part of our ancestors’ diets.

What did your ancestors eat? Is this something you ever ponder? As family historians, the actual everyday activities of our ancestors can help to bring the dates and places we research to life.

In some cases the food our ancestors ate is quite different from what we are accustomed to today. With the lack of refrigeration and transportation, it’s no surprise that there were regional differences in cuisine. Considering the limited ability to transport and preserve ingredients, the variety of what was available to harvest locally, and the food preferences of local ethnic/immigrant populations, it is not surprising that the food that was served in various areas could be extremely different. A specialty enjoyed by those living in one region of the United States was all but unknown in another. While to some extent this is still true of modern cuisine today, as you can travel to different regions of the United States and taste local favorites not served where you live, these food differences are not as dramatic as they were 100 years ago.

So what were some food commonalities? Well there were many American foods that were feasted upon across the regions. One such food that was enjoyed by almost all Americans in the nineteenth century was oysters. Today oysters, depending on where you live, are usually a delicacy because of the price they command. It would also not be unusual to find people who have never even tried an oyster, raw or cooked.  In the nineteenth century oysters were everyday food items that were inexpensive and plentiful. They were the food of the common person.

Newspaper advertisements hint at the massive amounts of oysters available to our ancestors. Consider this 1874 newspaper advertisement from the Oregonian which lists several places to eat and obtain oysters.

Old Vintage Advertisement for Oysters - Oregonian Newspaper  1874

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 16 October 1874, page 5.

Street vendors, oyster houses, saloons, restaurants and home cooks prepared oysters in various, often creative ways. Oysters were served in every way imaginable including ways we are familiar with today like raw and fried. Interesting ways to serve oysters could be found in the era’s cookbooks including pickled oysters, oyster ketchup and one recipe that called for oysters to be served with shortcake.[i]

Consider this newspaper article which provides 11 ways to cook oysters that “if adhered to will bring cheer to the family board.” Note that this article was printed in a Kentucky newspaper—not exactly known today for its seafood. Yet this historical 1913 article tells “how best to serve the succulent bivalve [oysters], perhaps the most universally popular dish of the American table.”

How To Cook Oysters Old Recipe - Lexington Herald Newspaper 1913

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 19 October 1913, section 4, page 3.

There were also “mock oyster” recipes for those who were unable to obtain oysters. These oyster recipes substituted different ingredients for oysters including corn, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Women could cook dishes such as “Mock Oyster Soup,” “Mock Oyster Sauce,” “Mock Oyster Stew” and just plain “Mock Oysters.” While the appearance of a “mock” recipe in a cookbook might connote that the item was difficult to obtain or expensive, this was not necessarily so in the case of the oyster.

As oyster beds became contaminated and overfished in the early 1900s, oysters began to cease being eaten as an everyday food and became more of a delicacy. No longer was the oyster part of America’s everyday diet.

To learn more about America’s love affair with oysters see the history The Big Oyster. History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky.


[i] Stavely, Keith W. F., and Kathleen‎ Fitzgerald‎. America’s Founding Food. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, pg. 108. Viewed on Google Books 1 July 2012.

Julia Child (1912-2004)

This week the nation is remembering Julia Child – how much she contributed to our lives and how much fun she was to be with – via her books, newspaper columns, TV Show – The French Chef and interviews.

Julia Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams – this week – August 15, 1912 in Pasadena, California and died this week – August 13, 2004 in Montecido, California. She married Paul Cushing Child over a long Labor Day weekend – 1 September 1946. She had met Paul Child while stationed in Sri Lanka with the OSS during World War II. The OSS is now known as the CIA. For her life’s work she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003. She was 92 years old.

She is celebrated in Meryl Streep’s new movie – Julie & Julia


and she is in GenealogyBank too – from her numerous recipes; articles about her books & TV series; numerous obituries published in newspapers across the country and her death record in the SSDI.

Cook like Julia Child

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North Carolina newspapers 1719-1926, 1988-Today

(Photographer: Marion Post Wolcott.

See what’s cooking in the Wilkins family kitchen … near Tallyho, Granville County, North Carolina … and all the other news recorded in the Tar Heel State’s old newspapers.

GenealogyBank.com has North Carolina’s historical newspapers from 1719-1926, 1988-Today.

Click here to search all of North Carolina’s historical newspapers

or click on the titles below to search them individually.

Asheville, NC
Asheville Citizen-Times. 1/1/1999-Current

Chapel Hill, NC
Chapel Hill News. 5/3/2000-Current

Charlotte, NC
Charlotte News. 12/11/1888 – 9/29/1922
Charlotte Observer. 3/13/1892 – 12/31/1922
Charlotte Observer. 1/1/1992-Current

Cleveland, NC
Cleveland Post. 3/1/2007-Current

Durham, NC
Chapel Hill Herald. 1/1/2002-Current
Herald-Sun. 1/1/2002-Current
Raleigh Extra. 6/18/1995-5/25/1997

Elizabeth City, NC
Daily Advance. 11/9/2004-Current

Fayetteville, NC
American. 12/22/1719 – 12/31/1922
Fayetteville Observer. 1/18/1988-Current

Greensboro, NC
Greensboro News & Record. 1/1/1990-Current

Greenville, NC
Daily Reflector. 8/30/2004-Current

Halifax, NC
North-Carolina Journal. 8/1/1792 – 9/11/1797

High Point, NC
High Point Enterprise. 4/14/2007-Current

New Bern, NC
Carolina Federal Republican. 1/12/1809 – 4/25/1818
Morning Herald. 9/17/1807 – 4/30/1906

Newbern Herald. 1/20/1809 – 2/26/1810
Newbern Sentinel. 3/21/1818 – 12/25/1823
State Gazette of North Carolina. 8/9/1787 – 2/20/1799
True Republican. 7/4/1804 – 8/7/1811

Raleigh, NC
News & Observer. 1/1/1991-Current
Semi-Weekly Standard. 8/10/1861 – 3/8/1868
Star. 12/1/1789 – 5/12/1926

Red Springs, NC
Red Springs Citizen. 9/10/2008-Current

Rockingham, NC
Richmond County Daily Journal. 5/3/2003-Current

Rocky Mount, NC
Rocky Mount Telegram. 9/3/2002-Current

Roxboro, NC
Courier-Times. 11/22/2006-Current

St. Pauls, NC
St. Pauls Review. 9/4/2008-Current

Tryon, NC
Tryon Daily Bulletin. 5/14/2007-Current

Wadesboro, NC
Anson Record. 6/19/2003-Current

Wilmington, NC
Cape-Fear Recorder. 11/28/1818 – 4/11/1827

Star-News. 1/31/2002-Current

Winston Salem, NC
Winston-Salem Journal. 11/1/1997-Current

Finding People with Common Names

Finding people with unusual names can be very difficult but it is easy to find them on GenealogyBank.

Today I was looking for Henry B. Platter and his good wife, Rachel (Bittinger) Platter. The Bittingers are my cousins and many of them are from Garrett County, Maryland.

Now, Platter is an unusual name. It would be easy for a search online to bring back every record that spoke about cooking, kitchens, plates or platters.

On GenealogyBank, I was able to instantly zero in on records
about them.

With just a few clicks I was able to find a dozen documents
about the Platter family. I began opening them one by one.
The first hit came from the historical documents and was a pension request by Henry’s wife, Rachel Platter. I quickly discovered Henry had served in the Civil War, a private in Company A, Second Regiment, P.H.B. Maryland Infantry and received a pension of $72 a month (certificate No. 1045070). (This is from: Pensions and increase of pensions for certain soldiers and sailors of the Civil War. Feb 5, 1925: Serial Set Vol. No. 8392, Session Vol. No.A68th Congress, 2nd SessionH.Rpt. 1385).

This is a terrific document – it gave me a lot of details about the family. The record showed that he and Rachel had married on March 12, 1867. That would have been hard to find anywhere else.

It also states that he died on October 4, 1923 leaving her in need of assistance; how long he had served in the Civil War and that his disability was caused during the war.

This document showed that she owned her own home, the value was $500. Perhaps her house looked like this one. It is a picture of her nephew Charles “Wooly” Henry & Sarah (Hoover) Bittinger and their family in front of the family home in New Jerusalem, Garrett County, MD.

It was taken in 1937 just a few years after Rachel Platter had requested a pension. Perhaps Rachel had a similar home.
(Photo by Arthur Rothstein; Library of Congress Photo LC-USF34- 026095-D).

Wow. It’s great that
GenealogyBank has been digitizing so many documents. I never would have found this one on my own. It was easy to find it online at GenealogyBank.

Their names, marriage and death dates, military service; details about their house, their income – bingo, there it was – all this family history in one document.

GenealogyBank added over 42.5 Million family history records last year and added another 2 million just this week. It now has over 216 million historical newspaper articles, obituaries, government and historical documents online. records and documents online.

Give it a try right now. It’s available at a great “get acquainted” rate – only $9.95 for 30 days.

I found documents that gave me the details I needed for my cousins in the back hills of Maryland ….. what will you find?