Vintage recipes and traditions: finding the food of our ancestors

Last October, I wrote a post about finding the stack pie tradition in North Carolina.  The whole notion of stack pie is a wonderful thing to me.  It encompasses artistry, community, and family all in one dish.  But the only documentation I had of stack pie came from Cabins in the Laurel, a book my aunt gave me.  I knew I had to do more digging.

And I found some great things.  Amazing things.  But I didn't find them in the way I expected.  For instance, I realized discovering old (and sometimes forgotten) recipes can't really be done online.  Nowadays, we can do almost everything with a few clicks on our computer or phone.  But stack pie didn't really come up all that regularly for me, if at all.  So I dug some more.  And let me tell you how and where you can possibly come up with some great ideas for vintage food traditions and recipes.

  • Ask your relatives.  This almost seems too easy.  But our older relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) hold on to so much information.  And they'd probably love to talk about it.  Sit with them.  Jog their memory.  The most joyous of remembrances lie around food and family.  See what these people in your lives have to say.


  • Contact the local library in the area you're researching.  I cannot, cannot, cannot stress enough how valuable libraries are.  I really believe the majority of people in a town have no idea the wealth their libraries have to offer.  Yes, things are moving in a more electronic direction, like eBooks.  But the library not only holds old and rare books; these institutions provide family chronicles, newspapers, and other priceless documentation on the local history of the community.  Let me give you an example:  I walked into a library in Bakersville, NC, and asked the librarian at the front desk if they had any old local cookbooks or recipes.  She thought for a minute, and said, "Have you been in our North Carolina room?"  She then walked me into a room no bigger than a walk-in closet filled with books and articles about the local area.  Pulling a huge table out of the way, she got on her hands and knees and began to hand me small local cookbooks from Mitchell County.  I was in heaven, I tell you.  And after making much use of their photocopier, I took invaluable information about the local area.  Almost every library has either a local history room or several shelves dedicated to community archives.  I have to believe you won't walk away empty.


  • Use the library in your own area, even if it's miles away from the area you're researching.  The library in my town has been very good to me.  And I've become friends with the reference librarian.  Tell him/her what and where you're researching and what you're trying to look for.  He/she can pull books and other information you didn't even know existed.  My reference librarian got a book for me on Appalachian cooking, a book I didn't even know existed.  I then tracked down the author and sent an email to him.  And he was very gracious and wrote me back (a lot of authors are.)


  • Go to library book sales.  I think you can tell by now how much I love the library.  Many people don't know that the library either has an ongoing book sale or has an enormous book sale once a year.  Go.  Go.  Go.  A library in the next town over has a huge one every year, and I wake up at 6:30am on a Saturday morning and pay $20 to get in before the public.  And it's so worth it.  The library will have local history and cookbooks, and let me tell you a secret:  I've gotten old church cookbooks for free because no one else wants them.  These books have so many old recipes from churches in the area and all over the country.  I love to look at the recipes and who contributed them.  (Check out my friend Amber's post on her grandmother's cookbooks.  Lovely.)


  • Call the churches in the area.  For hundreds of years, the church has been one of the strongest pillars of a community.  These churches usually keep their history in their own libraries or designated areas.  Quakers keep amazing minutes of their meetings that can provide so much information about an locale.  And if you've grown up in church, we all know how the congregation loves food.  My food-loving family came from a line of Baptists and Methodists, and the central church in Bakersville where my family worshipped was the Bear Creek Baptist Church.  However, I didn't limit my contact with just them.  I decided I would call the other Baptist churches in the area to see if I could get any local food traditions.  Let me tell you something about that area:  Bakersville's population lies around a little more than 450.  In the Bakersville/Spruce Pine area, there are 22 Baptist churches.  And I called every single one of them.

So I've given you several ways to find those old forgotten recipes and traditions.  You'll find once you get started, the journey can be as joyful as the destination.  Off you go!

church cookbooks picture.JPG

How Alfred Traugott Thoms became Fred Prinzing: the story of my maternal great great grandfather

Finding information on my paternal side about Hannah (and pretty much everyone else) has been difficult.  Either photos and letters were lost, or they never existed at all.  I write more about this side because I knew them best; I spent long weeks and holidays and spent lots of time with them.  However, I didn't know my mother's side well, mainly because of geographical distance (we lived in Pennsylvania while most of them resided on the West Coast.)  But it's time to share some stories from them.  And while the Stafford side lacks information, my maternal Buerer side has a wealth of it--they documented almost every single sneeze.

Born in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Germany (a territory on the northern part of the country) in 1839, Frederich Traugott Jacob Thoms arrived in New York in August of 1855.  He later married Maria Ida Riesen (born in Prussia, now Poland) and later became a minister in Neustadt, Ontario, Canada, after graduating from German Baptist Seminary in Rochester, NY.  He had previously led several other churches before settling in Ontario, one being the Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, MI, and another Baptist church in Illinois.

Frederich and Ida had three sons:  William Julius, Robert Hilmar, Alfred Traugott (b. April 17, 1869), with another child on the way in March 1871.  One Sunday in March, Frederich rose to the pulpit to deliver his message and announced that although he had prepared a talk on a different topic, he felt the need to preach funeral sermon for someone in the congregation.  By the end of his speech, Frederich admitted to his parishioners it was his own funeral he was speaking of.  Within the week, Frederich became very ill and asked to speak to his three boys by his bedside to bless them.  Frederich died on March 22, 1871, leaving his pregnant wife with three young boys.

Ida gave birth to Emil George on December 16, 1871, and now had four boys to look after on her own.  A typhoid epidemic broke out in the area, and Ida contracted the disease while caring for others in need.  She passed on June 2, 1873, leaving her sons orphans.

 Alfred Traugott Thoms aka Fred Prinzing, probably around the time of his adoption.

Soon after, the four boys were sent to Chicago to live with Ida's parents, Johann and Justina Riesen.  Apparently the Riesen's were extremely poor and had many other children to look after.  Food was scarce, and the milk for the family went to their biological children while the four Thoms boys drank coffee.  The Sunday after the boys arrived, they were placed on the platform of the First German Baptist Church of Chicago for possible adoption.  No one responded.  The Thoms boys returned to their grandparents. 

However,  little girl named Rose Prizing sat in the congregation and felt sympathy for the boys.  She begged her mother for a brother, and even though her mother replied no for a time, Mr. and Mrs. Prinzing returned and took Alfred, probably around four years old, into their home, later adopting him and giving him the name Fred Prinzing.  As for the other boys, William went to live with an uncle, and Robert went to live with a family called the Janssens to work on their farm.  Emil remained, as he was a sickly child (probably with polio) and either couldn't walk or didn't walk well.  Eventually, Emil went to live until he was 21 with a German pastor named Rev. Carol Ohlgart and his family.

As Fred grew older, he expressed an interest in farming, and later founded the Congo Gospel Mission of Villa Park, IL, and served for 22 years as its Secretary and Treasurer.  He married Emma Haunschild on March 1, 1892, and had four sons and six daughters. 

Fred Prinzing and his wife, Emma Haunschild.

My mother remembers him as a very elegant and kind man who was well read and enjoyed talking to his grandchildren.  On January 28, 1951, Fred passed away after a brief illness while visiting his daughter in Crawfordsville, IN. 

Information obtained from writings and stories from my grandmother, Victoria Emma Prinzing Buerer and H.F. Shermer.

Friday's Faces From the Past: my maternal grandfather, Harry Buerer

Throughout my entire life, my maternal grandfather, Harry Buerer, lived in the Sacramento area of California.  His pastoral and mission work took him and his family to the Belgian Congo and Manila, Philippines, but he always returned to sunny California where he kept one of the best vegetable gardens I've ever seen in my life.  A kind smile and loving eyes, he could also whip up a peach sundae like you've never seen.

The picture below shows my grandfather far before I ever knew him.  He played football for Wheaton College from 1936 to 1940, and I believe also was a great wrestler.  I like he kind of looks like Cary Grant here, and I'm sure he stole many hearts, leaving Wheaton with my grandmother's.

Old photos: Ceres First Baptist Church

While going through a bunch of old photos yesterday, I came across this disintegrating photo that I knew nothing about.  I could make out the words "First Baptist Church" over the doorway, but I had no other clues.  I emailed my mother about it, and she said the church is  the First Baptist Church in Ceres, California, the church where my mother was baptized and my grandfather attended as a young adult.  Throughout his life and many travels, my grandfather considered it his home church even after he moved across the world with his family.  The photo is almost completely withered, but I scanned what I had left. 

Ceres First Baptist Church old.jpg

Here's the church on Google maps, and it looks remarkably similar to what it looked like in the photo. 

More stories to come from my maternal side....