Food for Thought
9/26/2009
Satisfy your hunger for family history with ethnic and cultural cookbooks.
Eating. Everyone does it—and so did your ancestors. We've often suggested getting to know your ancestors by reading about their culture and customs. Now get to know what they ate. Even some of the most obscure ethnic and cultural groups have a cookbook. As you'll see from this sampling, you can discover not only recipes for dishes your ancestors may have eaten, but also something about the culture and customs surrounding those meals.

1. The American Ethnic Cookbook for Students by Mark H. Zanger (Oryx Press, $32.50) Don't let the word "students" in the title keep you from exploring this book—it's written for adult students of ethnic cooking. Most of us are a mixture of several different ethnic groups, so this cookbook truly offers something for everyone: It covers 122 American ethnic groups, from the Pennsylvania Dutch to Black Muslims. That includes foods of more than 20 Native American tribes, from the Cherokee to the Potawatomi. Each section opens with a short history of the ethnic group followed by two to six recipes. Every recipe is accompanied by a note about where the recipe came from and how it was used or changed. This book is perfect for those occasions when an ethnic potluck is the theme. Serve Cherokee Huckleberry bread, Jewish carrot-sweet potato tzimmes, Norwegian kringles or Turkish suisu kebab. And for additional recipes, visit the book's Web site at <www.ethnicook.com>.

2. Basque Cooking and Lore by Darcy Williamson (Caxton Printers, $14.95). Idaho, Nevada and Utah are home to most Basque-Americans. Basque people originate from the Pyrennees region between Spain and France and came to the Americas to work as sheep herders. Growing up in Idaho, Williamson became interested in Basque culture and foodways. The first half of her cookbook is a collection of Basque recipes, such as Dutch-oven cornbread, Basque garlic soup and braised lamb with cilantro and lemon. The second half is a collection of Basque lore, told in short essays from her experiences and interviews with the Basque people.

3. The Best of Czech Cooking, expanded edition, by Peter Trnka (Hippocrene Books, $24.95). Meat dishes are often the centerpiece of Czech meals, but a variety of appetizing soups, salads, dumplings, vegetables and desserts also grace the family table. This book is an excellent introduction to the variety of dishes from Czech culture, from farmer-cheese canapZs and white-bean salad to breaded dumplings and sour lentils. As in many ethnic cookbooks, the introduction discusses Czech cuisine and a bit about the Czech people. There's also a chapter on beers, wines and spirits—including the Czechs' famous pilsner. Hippocrene's Best of Cooking series covers ethnic cuisine from Albania to West Africa; see its catalog at <www.hippocrenebooks.com>. (For a guide to finding Czech and other Eastern European ancestors, see page 38.)

4. Cooking the Italian Way by Alphonse Bisignano (Lerner Publications, $7.95). Although the recipes here aren't exactly the ones your Italian great-grandma prepared (it's doubtful she cared about fat and cholesterol intake), they cover all the classics: spaghetti with meat sauce, chicken cacciatore, pizza, bruschetta, minestrone, risotto and my personal favorite, ossi dei morti (dead bone cookies). Along with the recipes, you'll learn about Italy and its people, regional cooking differences, holidays and festivals, and how an Italian meal is traditionally served. While this is a good general Italian cookbook, also explore ones specific to the region in Italy where your ancestors originated. Lerner's Easy Menu Ethnic Cookbook line encompasses African, Asian, European, Middle Eastern and South American ethnic groups. Two new sets are due out in 2002; see <www.lernerbooks.com>.

5. Sowbelly and Sourdough: Original Recipes from the Trail Drives and Cow Camps of the 1800s by Scott Gregory (Caxton Printers, $14.95). Looking for authentic cowboy recipes like Great-grandpa used to make or eat on the cattle drive? Sowbelly and Sourdough brings you the chuck-wagon cuisine of hearty meals made from scratch. Ingredients may have been limited out on the trail, but cowboy cooks knew how to create mouth-watering vittles. Experience iron-skillet cornbread, real fried chicken, Wyoming beef stew, chopped-beef hash and Brown Betty. And for the full dining experience, take these recipes on your next camping trip and make them on an open fire, just like those 1800s cowpokes did. Gregory explains how and why meals were prepared on the trail, and incorporates quotes and tidbits about the trail hand's lifestyle.

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