Genealogists are detectives. After acquiring names and dates, they work on places of birth, marriage, residence, worship, school, death, etc. Within each of those is a social history of the time and place.

When researching an ancestor, begin first with what you, the family genealogist, have inherited. Look carefully at every letter, greeting card, and postcard (note postmark, address, as well as name and message), deed, certificate, document, scrapbook, and other clues to the person you are researching.

In your quest to learn about your ancestor, don’t overlook church, school, club, or organization cookbooks. They seem like a benign source of information, but you might find good clues. Generally a cookbook was published by members.

For example, if it is a church cookbook that you are looking at, note the location of the church. Is there a photo of it and the date the book was published? Check the pages of recipes and contributors for any names familiar to you, even if it isn’t your ancestor. It might be a family member or neighbor that moved to the community at the same time. Remember to use FAN (Family, Associates, Neighbors). If it is an ethnic or cultural recipe, that can be an insight.

Some cooks made personal notes on a recipe page, which can give a societal view of the family. For example: “I shared this recipe with Cousin Edith at the family reunion in 1920.” There is the name of a cousin and a family reunion date — possible research tools.

Or “Papa loves this borscht. He said his Grandma Natasha brought the same recipe from Europe.” Clues: the given name and the food are classically Eastern European.

Most cookbooks were a way for the church to make extra money. In America, the first charity cookbook is thought to be “A Poetical Cookbook” by Maria J. Moss, published in 1864 to subsidize medical costs for Union soldiers injured in the Civil War. The concept was so popular that more than 3,000 charity cookbooks were published between 1864 and 1922.

Church ladies were not the only ones to communicate through shared recipes. In 1886, a group of politically progressive women in Massachusetts published “The Woman Suffrage Cookbook.” It was created to raise funds for Boston’s suffrage campaign and to promote the group’s agenda. If you discover an ancestor’s recipe in that book, you would have insight to her character.

When visiting a family member, ask if they have any family cookbooks that you may look at. Visiting where an ancestor lived? Check libraries, antique, and thrift storers for old cookbooks — there may be one with your ancestor’s recipe.

“There is no history without the characters.”

Becky McCreary is newsletter editor for the Southern Arizona Genealogy Society. Contact her at or visit the society’s website at, where her columns are archived. The articles may not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

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