Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner shares some lovely reminiscences about Thanksgiving and our family connections to food. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.
As we make our Thanksgiving plans, we each have certain foods we can’t imagine Thanksgiving without. Thanksgiving turkey is a classic. Each family has their own staples – various dishes usually served with the turkey or ham. Some of these staples have been a tradition in the family for who knows how many generations. Have you ever considered where your food traditions came from?
Food has a way of connecting people, including between generations, such as at a holiday meal. Can you remember grandma without remembering her cooking? Or perhaps you’ve mastered a recipe enough that your relatives can’t eat it without thinking of you. This connection can extend far.
What started as a school assignment for me turned into a personal connection with my great-great-grandmother, Mary Louise Kearney, who died decades before I was born. The assignment was to interview a relative about a deceased relative whom they had known, so I interviewed my great-aunt about her grandmother, my great-great-grandmother.
My great-aunt was a child when her grandmother died, so her memories were from her early life. She told me about her grandmother’s mashed potatoes, describing them as lumpy and very buttery. I like to cook, and I like to eat potatoes, so I decided to try replicating my great-great-grandmother’s mashed potatoes. I asked my great-aunt for the recipe, which her grandmother had never written down. She cooked everything by throwing ingredients together until she got something that tasted good, much like how I usually cook.
So, I took this approach to replicating Mary Louise Kearney’s mashed potatoes. The next time my great-aunt came to town, I fed her my replica of “Grandma Kearney’s” mashed potatoes. She said they were similar to how she remembered them. (I have included the recipe at the end of this article.)
It occurred to me that Grandma Kearney had been dead for over 60 years and her cooking was something that was remembered about her. This shows how powerful the connection of food is. When I get the FamilySearch notification that it’s Mary Louise Kearney’s birthday, I celebrate by making her mashed potatoes.
I’ve not researched my Kearney line as much as I’ve researched other lines in my family tree, but I grew up hearing stories of her family, and poked around that side of the tree enough to gain familiarity with her background. Grandma Kearney was born in America to Irish immigrants and married an Irish immigrant, Joseph McElhinney. Their oldest son, John, is my great grandfather, whom I knew as “Great-Grandpa” growing up. He was already an old man by the time I was old enough to remember him.
Visits to Great-Grandpa and Great-Grandma were characterized by playing outside in the huge yard, sitting in the living room surrounded by books and magazines to read, and eating Great-Grandma’s cooking – which typically consisted of meat and potatoes. On such a visit during my teens, when I was interested in romance stories, I asked Great-Grandpa how he and Great-Grandma had met. He told me they met in college while playing ping-pong, described their college courtship, and explained how they married right after college as was customary in that day for college sweethearts.
Great-Grandpa going to college was its own story. He was a first-generation college student whose parents were poor. Grandma Kearney was either a maid or a cook, Joseph McElhinney was a chauffeur. (My great-aunt told me they met while working for the same employer.) Great-Grandpa’s teachers noticed his potential and encouraged him to pursue college, including doing well enough in high school to qualify for a scholarship. Thus Great-Grandpa graduated college and became a nuclear physicist.
My dad would relate this story to me and my siblings over family dinner, especially as he tried to encourage my sister and me to pursue STEM degrees. (My sister graduated with a chemistry degree; I considered STEM then went with genealogy instead.)
Joseph McElhinney’s story was also shared over food. Every St. Patrick’s Day, my dad would make Irish flag cookies and tell me and my siblings the story of Joseph’s journey to America. He had been a wagon driver in Northern Ireland, and his family was Protestant. When some Catholics needed a wagon, they decided to steal one from a Protestant, who happened to be my great-great-grandfather. They beat Joseph and left him for dead and made off with his wagon.
However, Joseph survived the attack and went home to his family. When his assaulters heard he had survived, they gave him a one-way ticket to America, indicating they’d come after his family unless he left. So, Joseph came to America and made a life for himself here, and eventually met his wife, Mary Louise Kearney.
Food, and the stories that go with it, have a power of connecting us to our ancestors. This connection can be very personal. After my brother died, my family would celebrate his birthday by eating a specific flavor of ice cream: Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie, which was the only ice cream my brother had tasted while he was alive.
A dear friend of mine, Jeffery, has lost his mother. Shortly after her death, he really got into making her recipes, and he shared some of those foods with me. I never met his mother, but I could tell how much she meant to him by seeing his enthusiasm making her recipes.
What stories are behind the food you serve at Thanksgiving? What do you know of the relatives that introduced those recipes to the rest of the family? As you explore and discover these stories, your Thanksgiving feast can become more meaningful.
Grandma Kearney’s Mashed Potatoes
- 4 large potatoes, peeled, chopped, and boiled
- 1 stick of butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Splash of milk
- Combine potatoes, butter, and milk in a mixing bowl, smash with a fork (but leave lumpy)
- Add salt and pepper – add more milk and butter if needed