Newspapers, Food & Family: Just like Nonna, Nana & Grandma Used to Make!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott writes about how old newspapers helped to connect two of his favorite passions: food and family.

As a genealogical historian, I have always enjoyed the intersections of food and family! To begin with, meals frequently offer wonderful opportunities for sharing time together. It makes little difference if it is Thanksgiving (my personal favorite), Shabbot, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, or simply Tuesday night. This is one of the main reasons I added a set of pages for food and recipes on my website at Onward To Our Past® and why my bookshelf (which you can see at LibraryThing.com) contains such titles as The Food of A Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, The Best of Czech Cooking by Peter Trnka, and A Taste of Croatia by Karen Evenden.

In my own family tree I happen to have three very long, strong, and prominent branches. One is from Cornwall in the United Kingdom, one is from Bohemia (now Czech Republic), and my wife’s family branch which is from the Molise district of Italy. I love foods from all three family lines, but I am particularly partial to Cornish pasty, Bohemian kolache and Italian gnocchi.

photo of Scott Phillips and family members enjoying a “pasty party” over the holidays

Scott Phillips and family members enjoy a “pasty party” over the holidays. Photo from the author’s collection.

During the recent holidays my daughter, who has become quite a chef, asked me about my family food favorites. Just for fun, she and I grabbed the iPad and dug into GenealogyBank.com to have a look at what we might find in the way of interesting additions to these food favorites of mine. We were pleasantly surprised!

We started, since she tends to bend towards the Italian family branch, with gnocchi, a marvelous Italian potato dumpling. We put the term in the search box and in an instant we were reading hundreds of articles and recipes for this unique food.

One of the stories we liked best came from the Idaho Statesman.

How to Cut Down Your Food Bill and Still Live Well, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 22 September 1918

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 22 September 1918, second section, page 9

We both enjoyed this story as it gave a very nice gnocchi recipe with the bonus of a delicious, easy accompanying sauce. However, we got a good chuckle out of the estimate that the meal described would only cost us “fifty cents.” Oh, and we decided to skip the step later in the article advising us to place some of our food on an “asbestos pad.”

My grandson must have heard us laughing and joined us. When we explained what we were doing, coupled with the fact that he is a bit of a dessert-hound, he immediately said “let’s look for kolache, Grandpa.” So we were off again. This time we were in search of kolache, a simple but delicious Bohemian dessert pastry. We began to scroll through some of the almost 2,000 articles that search term returned while I regaled my grandson and daughter with stories of my Czech Nana’s kolache.

The very first article we found was from my hometown newspaper, the Plain Dealer.

kolache recipe, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 March 1951

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 March 1951, page 16

This article was titled “Fancy Breads and Rolls Are Enjoyed by Family at Easter.” That sounded right to me as my Nana Vicha only made kolache for special events. Then something really caught my eye. Two of the fillings that were suggested were apricot and prune. These were the only two fillings my grandmother ever made. No one could quite understand how excited I was, but I was madly writing down every step of these recipes and calculating when I could get enough kitchen time to try them out!

By this time our group had grown to a family crowd of nine. Multiple ideas and suggestions were offered and requested. My son’s plea caught my ear when I heard him say “how about pasty, Dad?” Now we were off to see what we could find about this fine Cornish meal-in-a-crust!

My grandson was duly impressed when I came across, and read, an account found in the Stoughton Sentinel all the way back in 1876.

The Cornish Pasty, Stoughton Sentinel newspaper article 22 April 1876

Stoughton Sentinel (Stoughton, Massachusetts), 22 April 1876, page 1

This article is a fine backgrounder on the Cornish pasty—or, as it informed us, the “Cornish fiddle”—plus it offered such varieties as mackerel pasty and squab pasty. While it provided a general recipe, we needed something a bit more detailed for our use so we continued to look—since we all agreed we’d skip the squab.

It wasn’t long before I found this article from the Oregonian.

100-Year-Old Cornish Pasty, Oregonian newspaper article 2 April 1939

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 2 April 1939, page 74

This article, “100-Year-Old Cornish Pasty,” offered a recipe handed down for over 100 years (not actually about a pasty that was 100 years old—much to the dismay of my grandson!) This was great, but I soon realized that unless I had time for an extra run to the grocery store and a day in the kitchen, we would be pasty-less. Or would we?

I led my “gang” into the kitchen, pulled open the freezer drawer and showed everyone eight beautiful pasties ready for the oven (courtesy of the really awesome Lawry’s Pasty Shop in Marquette, Michigan). Although this bakery is all the way in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the good news is that they are willing to ship nationwide. I heated up the oven, and in a wee bit over an hour there we all were, having a “right proper” pasty party!

As I was putting my grandson to bed that night he drowsily said to me “Gee, Grandpa, who would have thought old newspapers could taste so good?”

I just smiled and agreed!