Food & Genealogy
PUBLISHED: 14:13 17 April 2015 | UPDATED: 10:16 28 April 2015
As readers of my blog will know, one of my passions is researching my family's heritage through the celebration of culture, festivals and the food associated with it.
Delving into realms outside of my own, I created an interview series on my blog called ‘Food Roots’ which captures the meaning of food for culinary personalities that have heritage links outside of the UK and how that inspires their cooking on a daily basis.
Taking my own experiences into account and witnessing a running theme throughout the interviews, the focus of ‘family’ comes through repeatedly. Taking an emotional view of what it means, the traditional role of the family offers a sense of unity and nurtures our tribal instinct of needing to belong. Following on from that and capturing its modern day guise, the ritual of families congregating together for mealtimes is commonplace, for everything from feast/festival days to general evening dining, as well as what you cook and subsequently the memories that are created and associated with those occasions. Indeed confirming, that family and food go hand-in-hand.
So why is our heritage and past so important? Knowing the origin of our roots makes us feel grounded, almost like knowing how we fit in in the world. It provides us with a connection to the values, beliefs, and perhaps even the religion we have been brought up with and offers reasoning behind what we follow. It also offers a link and understanding to past generations and their history.
However, for some, family memories or memoirs may not be available or have disappeared, so finding a connection to the origins of their roots has to be done via other means, whether that is visiting the place that their descendants hail from, or by simply cooking dishes that would have been enjoyed by their ancestors. With advancements of international supermarkets in all major towns, online purchasing and a wealth of recipe books and websites available, it makes sourcing the recipes and ingredients so much easier and ultimately makes it feasible to accomplish.
I know for instance, for me, eating Paska (a kind of Eastern European cake/bread) will always be synonymous with Easter. I know this is something that for generations has been eaten by both sides of my family and for that reason, it offers me a chance to remain connected with my heritage and celebrate Easter like they did. Same for my friends of Serbian descent who celebrate their patron saint each year on December 19 by way of feasting and Hindi friends who prepare their kitchens for feasts such as Diwali and Holi.
Even television shows such as Bravo TV’s ‘Top Chef’ have had ‘Genealogy’ weeks whereby contestants make a dish inspired by their roots. This theme has also featured on shows such as ‘The Great British Bake Off’ and ‘Food Glorious Food’ where contenders use their family roots to accomplish the food challenges they’re given.
Taking one’s own heritage to one side, looking at the immigration history of the UK, there is an abundance of evidence that shows how the medium of food has supported immigrants’ integration into British society without sacrificing the loss of tradition and in return, has offered a brand new arena for Brits to explore.
One example is the Brick Lane area in East London which has witnessed different waves of immigration influencing the district during the course of time and each wave keeping the spirit of their homelands alive through food and culture. French Huguenots, Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi communities have all held court at different stages and have left their mark. These days, in the main, it is known for its wealth of curry houses but yet still has echoes of the Jewish community’s influence with a few bagel houses still in existence and some of the area’s markets observing closure on Jewish Sabbath days.
Another example are the stronghold Italian communities that settled in Scotland and Wales, who opened up ice cream parlours and pizzerias in the late 19th century. The Chiappa Sisters are well known in Wales and in culinary/media circles for promoting the importance of keeping their Italian food roots front of mind, which they have done via their books, TV appearances and magazine columns.
Examining the patterns of immigration, the commodity of food offered immigrants an opportunity to make a living. With Indo-Asian and Chinese communities creating dishes that were adapted to accommodate British palettes, this resulted in restaurants and take-away establishments opening en masse around the country and this was recently featured in the BBC documentary ‘Spicing Up Britain’. This is supported by a well-documented fact that Indian or Chinese take-away options have now overtaken in popularity rankings from the stalwart tradition of ‘fish & chips’.
Dedicated pockets within major cities have embraced these changes with the Midlands being no exception. Leicester has Belgrave Road (aka ‘The Golden Mile’) which is the city’s go-to destination for curries. Birmingham has the internationally renowned ‘Balti Triangle’ area which in itself has become a tourist attraction and also the Chinese Quarter where masses flock for quality oriental food and to revel in the Chinese New Year festivities. As well lots of delis, cafes, shops and eateries appearing on local High Streets representing a multitude of nationalities and an opportunity to buy and eat the food of other origins.
Nearer to home, within the borders of Warwickshire, internationally acclaimed chef Marco Pierre White is testament to the above and has opened a chain of restaurants called ‘Marco’s Italian’ which honours his maternal Italian heritage coupled with his love for New York. The ethos behind the chain explores the flavours of Italian tradition yet with a twist of Americana, offering an acknowledging nod to the Italian immigrant community that settled in New York and their version of food which kept ‘a taste of home’ yet accommodating the American demographic. Quoting Marco in a recently conducted interview he stated that “a story is more important than a recipe” and it could certainly be interpreted as so for this venture. With one restaurant in Stratford upon Avon that opened last autumn, it has already become a favourite with the town’s residents and visitors and on the same street is another Marco’s, but instead, it’s an independent Italian delicatessen which proves the demand for international food is high. ‘Marco’s Italian’ counterpart in nearby Kenilworth and has opened hot on the heels of Stratford upon Avon, showcasing the passion that Marco has for his heritage which can be sampled county-wide.
Equally, Abz, the owner of Aqua Food & Mood Lebanese Restaurants in both Coventry and Warwick, explained that Lebanese food and culture are closely related and are interwoven by love, heritage and happiness. The philosophy behind it is that the food is cooked with passion, pride and mostly love with anticipation that those who consume it will be joyful and content. All these elements are of paramount importance to Abz and the catalyst for having the restaurants in the county is that as Warwick is full of British history and heritage, he wanted to add a different dimension to the town’s quaint characteristic setting by bringing a taste of Lebanon’s history to the heart of it for others to experience. And indeed when sampling the sheesha pipes in the restaurant’s bedouin tent, you can catch a glimpse of Warwick Castle on the horizon demonstrating the accomplishment of a fusion between East and West.
Knowing your roots, even if it is only having knowledge via food history, is important whatever your cultural background. If you are of British origin, think about glorious Sunday lunch roasts, cream teas, pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and even sausages with jacket potatoes for Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night – all of which are quintessentially British and are steeped in history. Probably tweaked along the way, your family may have their own version of recipes which means you have your own set of family food roots. And as for me, I have the best of both worlds. I feel blessed to have my Eastern European culture that I can delve into and yet I feel enriched by the British culture that I have been brought up with too. Borscht followed by Bakewell Tart anyone?
For more from Anna, visit her blog Word In Veg Ways