**Note from Gena: I love hearing other people's experiences combining food history with family history. Today I have the pleasure of sharing a guest post from Rachael Rifkin from Life Stories Today and the Family Resemblance blog.
“Understanding your family’s food history and food traditions can help you learn more about your family’s cultural identity, financial status, religious beliefs, and overall health. Some of your food history involves the happy times and celebrations and fond memories, while other aspects of your history may involve foods that helped people survive difficult times.”
--From the Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes, Gena Philibert-Ortega
For the last few years I’ve been digging into my family history, and in that time I’ve found quite a bit—everything from tax records and cards to newspaper clippings and actual long lost relatives. One of the few things I haven’t found is recipes.
I wasn’t surprised; you have to go back to my great-grandparents’ generation to find the good cooks in the family. According to my mom and some cousins, their respective grandmothers kept their recipes in their heads.
But you don’t need family recipes to learn more about your family through food. Work with what you have, be it memories of your family’s favorite foods, or in my case, over a thousand pages of my grandfather’s writing. Taken from letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during the Korean War, they’re the original source of my love for family history as well as the main subject of my blog, Family Resemblance.
|From the personal collection of Rachel Rifkin, Used with permission.|
Gena’s book From the Family Kitchen inspired me to take a closer look at the food-related passages in my grandfather’s memoir. I discovered some interesting things.
“You have been firing many questions at me about the food? The food is just as good and plentiful as that found in the States and I am afraid that I will gain instead of lose weight.
For breakfast I especially appreciate heaping portions of scrambled eggs, potatoes and hot coffee. My fellow officers look askance at me when I tell them I relish chili beans, kidney beans, beef hash, corned beef hash, fruit cocktail, and chopped up hamburger enmeshed in a creamy concoction. For Sunday we usually dine luxuriously on chicken and steak.”
–July 18, 1951, 24th Day in Korea
|From the personal collection of Rachel Rifkin, Used with permission.|
When I first read my grandfather’s memoir I was surprised with how plentiful the food available to them was. But I was used to associating war with WWII, worldwide food rationing and army rations. By the time the U.S. became enmeshed in the Korean War things were getting back on track. Being in the army didn’t automatically mean C-rations anymore.
|The enlisted men using the earth as their dining table. July 23, 1951. From the personal collection of Rachel Rifkin, Used with permission.|
“In this sticky, stifling climate, eating a great deal makes me feel very nauseated. All I desire is to drink, drink, drink…The army supplies us generously with all the candy, cookies, and cake that we desire but we are unappreciative, not that we mean to be. This heat makes a person downright sick of candy and cookies; it's water we want, not something that increases our thirst. Besides, the heat actually melts the candy, especially Hershey bars, until they drip like thick syrup.”
–August 8, 1951, 45th Day in Korea
This passage says a lot about the conditions in Korea during the summer as well as my grandfather’s state of mind. Forty five days into his stay in Korea, he was still three months away from his R and R break and a little less than a year away from returning home. Still at the beginning of his army stint, treats were one of the few things to look forward to, and even they have been turned into something unpleasant.
“What a grand and glorious day, what stimulation of the spirit there has been today! The services conducted by Rabbi Zimmerman, the Jewish songs we sang, and the chicken dinner interspersed with chopped liver and gefilte fish were deeply appreciated and almost made me feel as if I were home.”
–Oct. 1, 1951, 99th Day in Korea
|Passing through the chow line. This was one of the few times the officers did not have a table of their own. Note the pots and pans and the cake. July 23, 1951From the personal collection of Rachel Rifkin, Used with permission.|
It’s nice to know that my grandfather was able to have these little moments of normalcy amidst the strangeness of war. I think he looked for these moments wherever he could, whether it be in food, letters from my grandmother or the annual traditions that accompany a holiday.
“Two hours later we hit Japan, but gently, at Ashiya, Japan where a bus awaited us. Now, instead of dust, dirt, nothingness and interminable waiting, Life and Civilization loomed and zoomed by: numerous houses, paved streets, shops, market places, bright lights, colorful signs, buses, bicycles, bustling people; at last I felt I had emerged from the cave of darkness. At the R and R center I tasted coca cola, a hot shower, a winter outfit of clothes; played ping pong, reveled in symphonic music, ate a huge, delicious sizzling steak.”
–Nov. 11, 1951
“It is heaven on earth eating what I want whenever I please. The Japanese waitresses wait on me hand and foot and they are very polite and pleasant to deal with. I enjoy the dining room and the white table cloth and the perpetual milk shakes and steaks and doughnuts and milk. Even after my stomach is full, I continue to gorge myself. I must admit that Korea was never like this.”
–Nov. 13, 1951
Those last two passages were written during my grandfather’s R and R break. Away from Korea, he finds all the comforts of home in Japan, including coca cola, milkshakes and steaks. A couple months later, he gets stationed in Japan and spends some time learning about the culture.
“Ah, the wonderful comforts of civilization! I am listening to symphonic music. I have just finished playing a game of chess, I have eaten Ritz crackers with anchovies, and I now sit luxuriously on a soft seat of a sofa.
Perhaps I should tell you something of the Japanese nation and people instead of waiting until we congregate before the breakfast table. The Japanese diet is very poor and there is a deficiency of milk, eggs, meat, fruit and even vegetables which spells a vitamin deficiency. Thus the Japanese suffer from bad teeth and poor eyesight, among other things. A gold tooth if a trademark among the Japanese and one-third of the population wear glasses. Their poor eyesight may have had a great deal to do with their poor markmanship during the air and sea battles of the last war. Would you want more information of a similar nature in my future letters?”
In his observations of Japanese culture, my normally tolerant and open minded grandfather sounds a little prejudiced, or at the very least, very American. Of course, this was less than 10 years after WWII and I’m interpreting his tone from a modern perspective. Still, I find it a bit of a stretch to associate the Japanese diet with an increase in eye glasses and thus poor marksmanship. There’s a smug quality to his comment on poor marksmanship too, like he figured out why the Japanese lost the war and isn’t it a shame?
“At Japanese shows it is unique to see the audience take out their box lunches during intermission. Or else, there are concessions within the theatre selling ice-cream, candy, sandwiches, etc., and there is even a restaurant where you can order a full-course meal. Being a true Japanese individual, I started eating bananas and tangerines happily in the theatre.”
On the other hand, you can tell my grandfather was really trying to get into the culture. It’s kind of cute to think of how bewildered he must have been when people started taking out box lunches during the intermission. Then he adapts to the situation with the help of fruit. I love it!
“Anyway, several colonels of other faiths made stirring speeches about religious freedom. That's right, as the Passover story says: to care for each other, to inspire ourselves to meet our present trials and tribulations, to give us hope that the future is worthwhile and good. Of course, we appreciated the Jewish delicacies cast before our eyes: matzos, Passover wine, gefilte fish, macaroons and horseradish.”
This passage came toward the end of my grandfather’s army stint (he flew back home in June of ’52) and you can almost hear the relief in his words. He talks about the future and he saves his Passover menu. Perhaps even then he was starting to think about turning his letters into a memoir.
Focusing on food gave me a new perspective on my grandfather’s memoir. It made me appreciate the hidden context in our words, born out of our backgrounds, time periods and subtext.
For my grandfather, food became a connection to home. It was one of the many reminders of home that helped sustain him throughout the year and a half he was in the service during the Korean War.
Rachael Rifkin helps people write their life stories and turn them into books. She writes about her grandfather and family history on her blog, Family Resemblance. Her favorite things are reading, random acts of kindness, fun, playing with her dogs, and laughing with her husband. Much to her great disappointment, and despite fervent practice, she cannot whistle. She’s also short. Furthermore, she is not especially good at writing short biographical sketches about herself and would rather not discuss how long this took her to write.