Food has always been a way my family has defined itself. When my sons reminisce about my parents’ farm, they might mention Grandma’s apple pie served New England style with cheese and Grandpa’s Southern breakfast of sausage, grits, and redeye gravy, eaten before watching Cisco Kid on their 1960s-era black-and-white TV. My daughter Kharran loved exploring different cuisines. “In a week,” her daughter Madrid told me, “Mom could cook the family dinner every night featuring a dish from a different culinary tradition.” Kharran also was a founder of a grocery store featuring fresh, local, organic food.
Around 1990 Kharran and I were working on a family cookbook. We talked with family members, collected recipes, and developed the book’s format. But the project was put aside because of the busyness in both our lives. After Kharran died, a few years ago, I was inspired to create a memorial to her by finishing our cookbook project. I was retired, I had the time and the skills, and the project was already well along.
Reviewing our old notes sparked memories, some fleeting and uncertain, others more powerful. I quickly realized I didn’t want to make just a cookbook—something with recipes, yes, but more than a collection of recipes. Because of Kharran, because my grandkids never knew my parents, because the world of today is so different from the world in which I—and even my kids—grew up, I wanted to remember the cooks as well as their food. And, as an anthropologist, I wanted to recreate the sociocultural context.
The project also grew out of my longstanding interests in history and memory. When I was new to anthropology, Nancy McDowell said to me, “Good anthropology is good history.” I didn’t understand then, but now I see my fieldnotes and other writing on my long-term Kenyan research as historical records. I have written a couple of articles with “anthropological and historical perspectives” as a subtitle and have published two books on social memory and history (Climo and Cattell 2002; Cattell and Schweitzer 2006).
When I decided to write about my family, I got busy doing attic research. My attic yielded helpful treasures: letters, photos, newspaper clippings, my mother’s scrapbook, and other memorabilia. I explored my own memories and prodded the memories of my siblings and children. And I began writing. The more I wrote, the more I remembered. This has been ultra –long-term participant observation, with the participation occurring over a period of about 40 years, as I was growing up on our Pennsylvania farm and later when my kids spent their summers on the farm with Grandma and Grandpa. Observation—the analytical viewpoint—came years later.
I also did a lot of research online and in libraries into my family’s genealogy, the places where my parents grew up, and my dad’s early years. I delved into food history and food anthropology. What began as a recipe collection became the story of my family in mid-to-late twentieth century rural Pennsylvania, along with the stories of my Connecticut and South Carolina ancestors, with food as a thread binding the generations together.
While the book is about my family, it is also about olden times, about a world that existed only 40 or 50 years ago but today is no more. We experienced this world directly, without mediation by earbuds covering up wind sounds and birdsong, or smartphone screens seducing us from looking at whatever was around us. We shopped in quiet because stores didn’t broadcast music. Most social interaction was face-to-face because social media didn’t exist and people regarded phone calls as expensive. Instead, we wrote letters exchanged via what we now call snail mail. We didn’t eat out much. We seldom went far from home. A more insular world, yes, a quieter world, slower-paced. Better? Worse? I don’t know. It was what it was.
As the pages piled up, I wondered what to tell people I was writing. A memoir, I thought. But mine isn’t like the popular misery memoirs of today that tend to detail the author’s suffering and redemption (Yagoda 2009). Maybe a food memoir? No, these are mostly the stories of chefs and other food professionals. Not my league! Maybe a “memoir with recipes” (Rossant 1999)? A “nostalgia cookbook” (Sutton 2001)? A “cookbook-memoir” (Bardenstein 2002)? In a 2014 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting workshop, Ruth Behar told us that “all ethnography is memoir and eventually becomes history.” Maybe I was writing an ethnography? Perhaps an “intimate ethnography” (Waterston and Rylko-Bauer 2007:31–55)?
Having gone round and about, I eschewed all those possibilities and decided to call it a family food memoir. When I tell family and friends that I’m writing a family food memoir, they don’t ask “What’s that?” They get it.
People also wonder: is it true? Yes, it is true, or as true as I can make it—which depends heavily on memory, that wily thing, that quicksilver shapeshifter. So, with Ruth Reichl (1998, x) I say “Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual.”
In the end, I think In Grandma’s Kitchen: Food and Family in Olden Times tells an interesting story. About 15 people have read it and say things like, “I love this. It’s so interesting even though these aren’t my people.” Usually they go on to tell me about their own olden times.
And yes, it is also a cookbook. “We want the recipes,” my grandkids insisted. Okay, so a family story with recipes. A family food memoir.
I now have about 300 pages of the narrative, the story, and I’m working on the recipe chapters. What’s next? Because I have written this as a legacy for my family, it’s really focused on them. I don’t see a broad market for it and plan to self-publish. I hope it’ll be ready for my family’s Christmas stockings later this year.
Best of all, it’s been fun.
Maria Cattell is past president of the Association for Africanist Anthropology and a candidate for president of the Association of Senior Anthropologists. She has carried out research on aging and older people in Kenya, South Africa, and Philadelphia.
Cite as: Cattell, Maria. 2020. “Memory, Attic Research, and a Family Legacy.” Anthropology News website, April 29, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1399