What does raisin cake have to do with genealogy?

Tomorrow I will be speaking at Hennepin County Library‘s annual Family History Fair on “Finding Female Ancestors.” During my talk one of the topics will be women’s historical household roles, including cooking, sewing, and needlework, and what recipes and crafts can tell us about family history.

While I was preparing for a previous talk on researching Cornish ancestors–my Trewren and Edmonds ancestors came from Cornwall–I investigated some of the social media forums relevant to Cornish research. One of the Facebook pages I found was Recipes from a Cornish Kitchen.[1. Recipes from a Cornish Kitchen, page, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Recipes-from-a-Cornish-Kitchen-207309386110463/ : accessed 29 October 2016).] The Boiled Raisins Cake post[2. Ibid., posting “BOILED RAISINS CAKE …,” 20 September 2016.] caught my eye–my grandmother baked a boiled raisin cake that I loved as a child (and still love). It’s unusual in my baking experience–you boil the raisins, and save the raisin water to dissolve the baking soda that causes the cake to rise. The Facebook recipe, which is from a Women’s Institute book of recipes from Cornwall dating from the 1960s, is very similar to my family recipe!

My mother, who was born in 1925, grew up in the household of her grandmother Mary (Trewren) Weaver. Mary was the daughter of George Trewren, who immigrated from Ludgvan, Cornwall, in the 1860s, and the granddaughter of James Edmonds and Eliza Spargo, who immigrated from Marazion, Cornwall, shortly after their marriage in 1848.[3. I wrote about Mary (Trewren) Weaver, her mother Mary (Edmonds) Trewren, and Eliza in “Three Marys and an Eliza, Investigating the Trewren and Edmonds Families of Cornwall, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut,” Minnesota Genealogist 41:2 (2010), 5-13.] When asked about the cake, Mom said, “We always had it,” so I know that it was being made in the 1920s. This means that Mom’s grandmother Mary (Trewren) Weaver used the recipe! Since it is so similar to the Cornish recipe I found on Facebook, I’m guessing that it came to my great-grandmother from her mother Mary (Edmonds) Trewren or even from her grandmother Eliza (Spargo) Edmonds. That makes it even more of a treasure than I knew.

If you’d like to try it, here’s our family recipe. The version my mother had was typed by my grandmother.
Boiled Raisin Cake
from Mary (Trewren) Weaver, Tamaqua, Pennsylvania
2 c. sugar
1/2 c. butter and spry [Crisco or other shortening]
2 c. raisins
3 c. sifted flour
1 c. hot raisin water
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda
Boil the raisins. Drain and save the raisin water.
Cream the butter and sugar. Mix in the flour, the hot raisin water, the spices, and the baking soda.
Bake in a greased 9 by 12 pan for 30 minutes at 375 F. Also makes about 2 1/2 dozen cupcakes. Freezes and keeps well. Can be halved for a smaller cake.

What recipes have been handed down in your family? Have you compiled a family cookbook? If you’d like to think about how you can incorporate food and cooking traditions in your family history, you might enjoy these resources:

  • Alzo, Lisa. Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions, 2nd ed. N.p.: Otter Bay Books, 2011. Print and ebook editions available from Lulu.com.
  • MacEntee, Thomas. “How to Start a Recipe or Food-Related Genealogy Blog.” GeneaBloggers, 21 July 2009. http://www.geneabloggers.com/start-recipe-foodrelated-genealogy-blog/ : 2016.
  • Philibert-Ortega, Gena. From the Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes. N.p.: Family Tree Books, 2012.
  • Powell, Kimberly. “Create a Family Cookbook or Recipe Book,” About.com (http://genealogy.about.com/od/family_connections/a/cookbook.htm : accessed 28 October 2016).
  • For more ideas, google “genealogy” “food” “recipes”.