Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Food History, Family History

 

Image Credit: Screen shot from whatscookinggrandma.humanbeans.net

I first noticed the phenomenon of grandmothers cooking online when I came across Chow's "Cooking with Grandma" series. The first episode featured "Grandma Alvina" who shows her granddaughter how to cook prawn curry and coconut rice while telling the story of her 1972 move to the US from Burma. Chow has since added several more episodes in the series, and matriarchal kitchens seem to be sprouting up all over the internet and all around the world, offering their grandchildren and Youtube fans lessons in cooking and living history. More about culinary octogenarians, including video, after the jump.

A quick search of the internets will turn up, along with Chow's occasional series, a suprising variety of grandmothers holding court in their kitchens. The image above is a screen shot from "What's Cooking Grandma" a British effort at collecting international culinary wisdom and one my favorite efforts in this emerging genre (this video features Brazillian Grandma Sulzy). There are also several sites and video streams dedicated to individual women including a Youtube channel on Depression-era cooking with Clara (who is billed as a "94 year old cook author and great grandmother") and the always entertaining Feed Me Bubbe where Bayla Sher (possibly the most charismatic grandmother on the web) prepares kosher meals and teaches the Yiddish word of the day.

While all of these venues make use of different formats in different languages and on different continents, they have several characteristics in common: as with Alvina's Burmesse curry and Bubbe's latkes, these online grandmothers tend to prepare traditional recipes and narrate some amount of family or cultural history. Grandma Martha on Chow cooks candied yams for Kwanzaa with her grandson; Nana Ruth in Lancaster makes scones and blackcurrent jam (even if her canning technique isn't up to modern saftey standards); Ana Fadul shows her Brazillian grandchildren her Turkish mother's traditional recipe for kibe; and Welsh Grandma Betty, for your viewing pleasure, bakes traditional welsh cakes on her grandmother's cast iron baking stone:

I can see at least three realated impulses behind this trend in webcasting kitchen matrons. First, the contemporary wave of interest in cooking (and particularly in traditional, non-industrial foodways) helps drive interest in recipes and techniques that were perfected before the post-war rise of mass-produced convenience foods. If foodies get tired of taking advice from Alice Waters, they can turn to their own grandmothers or borrow someone else's online. Second, with the rise of restaraunts and convenience foods, many home cooking techiniques are being lost. It only takes a single generation for skills like home baking, canning, etc. to disapear from a culture's collective skill set, and webisodes of grandmothers in the kitchen are attempting to some degree to curate the knowledge of past generations. Third, since foodways are deeply personal components of human cultures, these efforts bear some resemblence to nineteenth century efforts in collecting folklore (practices that early anthropologists assumed would be destroyed by advances in science and technology). Unlike the efforts by nineteenth century folklorists, contemporary recipe collectors aren't interested in preserving a museum record of past culture. They are attempting to keep family traditions alive by passing traditional foodways on to new generations, and they are using technological advances to keep those traditions from becoming history. 

 

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