We are the living dreams of our ancestors.
I’ve always been fascinated by food as an expression of culture and humanity throughout time.
So much can be expressed through food—not just a love of gathering with kinfolk and loved ones, but also as a signal for what’s happening on the land and in your community.
In your family, you likely have food traditions of your own.
My friends with Italian heritage always eat cioppino (fish stew) the night before Christmas. My own family eats smoked salmon on Christmas morning to honor our Scottish heritage. I have a friend whose grandfather loved box-made confetti cake so much that they now eat it at every family gathering.
When I talk to women about connecting with their ancestors, some don’t know where to start. It feels overwhelming—especially if they don’t feel super connected to their immediate family.
My response to them (and to you) is to look to the food of your people.
Once you know your people (of which there can be many—I’ve got the blood of many tribes and European nationalities in me), pick one to start and research what food they ate. I like to look to old folk tales and myths from my people and see what food is mentioned in them. After all, our ancestors had to eat too. What food did they grow? When did they harvest and how did they prepare their food?
Stay curious and ask Grandmother Google what she has to share with you.
This past spring, I was invited to an ancestral potluck—where we each had to bring a dish from our people (such an amazing idea, by the way…it’s a great way to connect and learn with your community, and it’s delicious).
When preparing for the potluck, I decided to research old Scottish lore and came upon the stories of the selkies.
Selkies are legendary merfolk who can shed their seal skins and walk about on land. Stories of seeing selkies (and even falling in love with them) came out of the fishing culture of Scotland—lonely fisherman sharing stories of seeing a seal shed her skin and become a beautiful woman right in front of their very eyes.
I loved reading all of these selkie legends and, interwoven in these stories, was the mention of Scotch eggs—a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and fried in breadcrumbs that would keep easily and provided nourishment and strength throughout the day.
So I made falafel coated scotch eggs and brought them to the potluck, sharing the stories of the selkies alongside it.
This week, I’ve been reeling from a powerful ancestral connection to soup—lima bean soup, specifically.
After months of asking her, my mom dropped off an entire grocery bag filled with the accounts of my familial history on both my family’s sides. These books and folders contain so much of what came before me. I have so much gratitude to my mother and all my relatives who felt the pull to record and collect the stories of my people. I know not everyone has access to detailed records like I do.
Sifting through the barely legible handwritten records of ships built in Maine in the 1600s and accounts of marriages, births, and deaths, I came upon a diary entry of my great-grandmother Philomena’s life in the early 1900s as a poor immigrant family from Poland. It was written by her sister, Elizabeth.
Life was really hard for them, back then.
All four of the young children worked in a shrimp factory in New Orleans to pay for their one-bedroom factory housing they lived in with their mother. These were before the days of child labor laws (and mandatory education) so they were doing what they could to get by. My great grandmother was 6.
Most of the diary entry described the family’s living conditions and what made the days go by. She talked about how much they loved taking turns in the rocking chair (they would form a line as soon as they’d wake up, anxiously awaiting their turn to rock) and how she had to walk quietly back and forth across the floor of their house late at night holding her baby brother in her arms, keeping him quiet so their mother could get some sleep.
But what stood out to me was the passage about lima bean soup.
One night, while her father was away for work, the house Philomena shared with her mother and 4 siblings burned down in a horrible fire.
“Mama and we five children sat out on the street all night and waited for morning to come. Then she took us children toward the beach. Mama was so discouraged and she knew nothing to do but throw us in and drown us and then herself. While we were crossing the yard and heading for the beach, a lady came out and called us by name. When she found what mama was going to do she invited us into her home and gave us some dinner. We had a lima bean soup served in a soup plate. This was the first I had eaten anything like that.”
I dropped the book from my hands and clutched my heart when I read that passage.
My great great grandmother was in such despair with nowhere to live and five children to feed, she was going to drown herself and her children in the ocean had not a kind woman noticed them and invited them in for a bowl of soup.
That moment—that lima bean soup—was pivotal. It kept the family going. It kept them alive.
It led to my grandmother, which led to my father, which led to me.
So when I think about lima bean soup, I now feel a deep connection that goes beyond flavor and spices. It’s the life-saving soup. It’s the kindness of a woman who saw her neighbors in need.
I plan on making a lot of lima bean soup this coming winter.
Now I want to hear from you. Do you have any connections to foods of your people? Do you have any food traditions in your family that you hold dear?
Share them in the comments below.