My family includes a talented and tender group of women who love to talk, eat, and share. To honor the spirit and incredible regional cooking of our great-grandmother Alma Ruth Wilkinson, I have been working on a book project of recipes and remembrances, so that we may all feel closer to Ruth's heart, and kitchen, in Belhaven, NC. My great-grandmother died when I was six, and she had dementia for most of my first years, so my memories of her are bittersweet and complex. Over the years, many older family members came to my aid, sharing letters, recipes, and photos that helped me piece together her life. Some family members got rings when she passed. Others got quilts or cedar chests. The recipes are really the only traces I have of her in my life, and have provided a really unique window to her daily life, the coastal fishing town she lived in, and how her cooking glued everyone around her together (of ever color and class) no matter how good or how awful times were. While recipes are not tangible heirlooms to some people, to me they are priceless family treasure and history lesson.
The title of my project, "Wilkinson Plates," was inspired by Ruth's collection of blue willow dishes, ubiquitous at my mother's table and every special gathering during our childhood. The story goes that the plate collection started small but grew after a turn-of-the century hurricane barraged the Outer Banks and its low country neighbors, flooding stately Victorians and farmhouses alike, and depositing their contents on the banks of the Pamlico Sound and Pungo River. Just as those waters pulled possessions and treasures from their homes, her children and grandchildren were pulled beyond the Tidewater and deposited across the region, country and world. Just a couple of generations later, we have Chinese American, Persian, Italian and Slovak foodways to add to a mix that started with Ruth and a white Victorian house on a swampy river.
Do you have old family recipe books or handwritten recipes stuffed into your parents' cookbooks? If you haven't perused them in a while, take another look. Are there ethnic recipes that reminded them of a faraway home or loved one? Did they make those foods on certain occasions? Or do they include regional foods that were only available in that area (before the Interstates brought shelf-stable foods across the country)? Do they mention long-gone brand names or ingredients people just don't use anymore? Were they cooking things grown in their own backyard? Take a closer look and see what old family recipes can teach you about YOU!