Family Dinners: Serving More Than Food

The tradition of the family dinner spans across time, geography, and culture, and has a long history as an anchor for family gathering. Whether it’s gathering for a special holiday, or a simple Sunday dinner, the tradition of sharing a meal with loved ones offers nourishment beyond food. To share a meal is to share conversation, laughter and sometimes music. When we sit down to a meal, we strengthen our connections with the people surrounding us. We tell stories, create memories, and come away with a sense of belonging.

Family culinary traditions tie us not only to each other, but to our family heritage as well. Often, the recipes we use to prepare specific dishes for family meals have been passed down through generations. Such recipes, their specific ingredients, and methods of preparation, reflect a family’s cultural or ethnic heritage, and these become sources of family identity and pride. When we cook these dishes, their aromas and tastes thread through time and space, evoking the same senses as our ancestors around their dinner tables, or wherever family meals were shared.

When looking at these photographs of families sharing a meal together, both for special occasions and an ordinary day in the home, consider your own own family food traditions.

The Migus family gathers around the dinner table for a special occasion, c. 1980s. STCM 2004.46.185.
A couple celebrates their wedding anniversary, bringing out formal dinnerware to share a meal with guests around a specially decorated dinner table. This image originally ran in the St. Catharines Standard in 1938 with the caption “Mr. and Mrs. Albert Millet who on Saturday evening celebrated the 25th anniversary of their marriage at a dinner party held at their home, 43 Junkin Street.” STCM S1938.29.3.1
Member of the Davis family gather around a kitchen table. Here, family members – Fred Davis, Peggy Davis and Alex Leatherland, share coffee or tea. STCM 2004.13.173

Sharing Family Recipes

Every family has their own special recipes. Sometimes these recipes are considered “secret”, and it’s considered a right-of-passage to learn them. Other times, the recipes are encouraged to be shared, to be enjoyed by, and provide comfort to, others.

As the domestic kitchen was a realm of women for centuries in western society, family recipes have long been passed down through generations of women through example and oral tradition. It was only in the nineteenth century, as literacy became more widespread, that women began to write-down recipes on cards that could be kept and exchanged. Overtime, recipe cards evolved from being informal cue-cards containing very broad cooking guidelines to precise step-by-step instructions that included ingredients, measurements, and exact methods to follow.

Handwritten recipe cards are unique pieces of women’s literature. The condition of the card, food stains, markings, or the additional notes written on them later, can tell us a lot about what the recipe meant to its user and the life of the card as it was passed down through generations of a family. Recipe cards are sometimes the only surviving remnants of a women’s handwriting, their lasting stamp on the family. Using the recipe inevitably evokes memories of the family members it is known for. 

Does your family keep recipes that have been passed down by generations? Which of your own recipes or culinary traditions do you hope to pass on to future generations in your family?

This recipe for Devil’s Food Cake was found in a cookbook owned by Emma Morningstar and Nora Robson and used between 1935-1951. STCM F1998.442.1034

Another way family recipes have been shared and passed down is through community cookbooks. Often compiled by churches, libraries, or other local organizations, community cookbooks draw on family culinary traditions to help knit together whole communities through food. They collect and publish tried-and-true family recipes, usually to raise funds or to commemorate a significant anniversary. In doing so, community cookbooks also document the culinary-based regional, ethnic, and cultural practices of the families that make up a community, as well as their shared heritage.

Similar to the written recipe card, community cookbooks have historically been created by and for women. They were also one of the few mediums where women could express themselves in public and in print, sharing parts of their familial and cultural culinary traditions with their communities.

Do you have any community cookbooks in your kitchen at home? What stories do they help tell of the contributors’ culinary heritage?

Commissioned by CKTB radio station’s morning hostess, Elda Flintoff, this community cookbook collected recipes from women across St. Catharines. Inside, the recipes are organized by prepared culinary dishes, and lists the donor’s name. STCM 2006.77.1884
This cookbook was compiled to celebrate the centenary anniversary of Knox Presbyterian Church in St. Catharines, which officially formed in 1841. Created by the Knox Church Ladies’ Aid of St. Catharines, the cookbook was dedicated to “the housekeepers of St. Catharines”. STCM 2006.77.1888

Preparing Family Meals

Beyond the traditions of sitting down to share a meal with family, the act of preparation, cooking or baking with family members, can also hold significant meaning and fond memories. Preparing family meals involve moments of teaching and teamwork, as well as moments of storytelling, singing, and dancing as family members spend time cooking and baking together. Growing up, did you have any cooking or baking traditions with family?

Below are a few popular baking utensils that were found in home kitchens in the mid-twentieth century. Which kitchen tools were integral to baking and cooking in your childhood home? What about today?

Rolling Pin, c. 1930-1950. STCM 1968.96.1
Hand Beater, c.1920. STCM 1976.36.2
Cookie Cutter, c. 1930-1950. STCM 1978.49.4

Preserving Family Heritage through Family Recipes

Are you cooking a special family meal for Family Day this year? What traditions or family recipes will you draw on? As part of your Family Day celebrations this year, bring up the topic of food traditions and heritage with your family and see where conversation goes. You may be surprised to learn what traditions or meals hold meaning to your family members.

Understanding family food traditions is also a meaningful (and tasty) way to tangibly connect children to their family heritage. We’ve put together a DIY Family Recipe Tree Activity that you can do with the children in your family this Family Day. Through this activity, children can learn about their Family Tree and ask family members about their favourite family recipes. Download the PDF below for all the materials you need and watch our brief how-to video for step-by-step instructions!

Watch this instructional video to help get your DIY Family Recipe Tree started!

Happy Family Day from the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre!

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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