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Telling Our Story Through Recipes

If you ever visit my kitchen, you’ll probably notice the two shelves full of cookbooks. Maybe you have a similar collection.  

I use a few of these cookbooks regularly. Others, I’ve never made a recipe from.  I’ve bought them, been given cookbooks as gifts, and some have been handed down from family members.  A few are binders, with a collection of recipes from friends, family, and the internet.  

My most treasured recipes are ones I’ve never used, a collection of handwritten recipe cards. Written by my great-aunt, these recipes represent a part of my family history, when large Sunday lunches were the norm and holidays always included her 16-layer yellow cake with homemade chocolate icing.

I’ve never thought about how much we can tell our story through cookbooks until I bought a copy of Island Born and Bred on a recent trip to Harkers Island. Compiled by the Harkers Island United Methodist Women, the cookbook was first published in 1987. It’s a collection of not only recipes, but stories of the island off the North Carolina coast from its very beginning to the present day.

The history of an island, of a community, unfolded as I flipped the pages. From its settlement (which was due, in part, to Mother Nature), I could see life as it was for an island community through the stories and recipes passed down for generations. There were no glossy photos, but instead line drawings depicting life on the island.

Many of the recipes include seafood, which makes sense for a coastal community whose population was mainly fishermen. I was surprised to learn whaling was part of life generations ago off the coast of my state. There is even a recipe for Whale Stew, which is included only as reference to the island’s history and clearly states it’s for “game that is presently illegal to hunt and kill.”  

The first step, after cleaning the whale, was to cut the whale into bite-size pieces, which should take about two months, according to the recipe.  After covering with gravy, the whale was cooked over fire for four weeks.  

Yep, you read that right, it took four weeks to cook a whale. Just think about that for a few moments. This was a time when people lived off what they caught from the waters or grew themselves. A community that was isolated, only able to access the mainland by boat. A time without conveniences like ovens, microwaves, or takeout.  I struggle to make time for a recipe that takes 30 minutes to prepare and cook, and here is a recipe that takes six weeks, not counting the time it took to catch a whale.  

Reading the recipe, pictures formed in my mind of the community gathered together to process a whale, which could feed 3,800 people if the recipe’s yield is accurate. Of ladies’ fingers cramping after cutting up pieces of meat all day.  Of men tending the fire around the clock and adding fresh water from the sea every day for four weeks.  

You don’t have to go far in the cookbook to see how much cooking on the island has changed. I  found recipes calling for canned fruits, boxed cake mix, and Cool-Whip. The stories echo this, talking about how a bridge connecting the island to the mainland changed everything from social lives of islanders to its workforce.

As I read the recipes and stories, I realized how effective this cookbook was in showing me how life changed over the generations, but also how much has stayed the same. Descendants of families who first settled the island still live there. People are still making their living by fishing. Some recipes from this cookbook will never be made again, and some will be a part of every family gathering.

In agriculture, we tell our story in many ways. Before this cookbook, I’d never considered one way to tell our story was through the food itself, through the recipes our families used to make and the dishes still on our kitchen tables.

What recipes would you share to tell your farm’s story?

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