Ancestral comfort

September 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Few things are as comforting as a bowl of soup on a cold day. Add to the fact that soup is an old family recipe passed down for who knows how long, and it becomes the perfect recipe for comfort. When I spent a week looking through my ancestry, one of the things that stuck out was that while we may not have preserved language or some other customs, family recipes were one of those things that survived in some form or fashion. As I looked through old letters and calendars I came across a recipe I remember my grandmother making and subsequently my mother trying a few times: Groesknettlke soup.

There are often things you wish you knew more about with your heritage but can no longer ask. I wanted to know more about the origin of the soup but Google surprisingly yielded nothing, so I enlisted my German friend, Vicky, to try to figure it out. The recipe came from my great grandmother who lived in a German enclave of the Austro-Hungarian empire and then later immigrated to the US, settling in Pennsylvania. Vicky explained the spelling is very typical of how the “mountain Germans” write with the “lke” on the end. The soup means “big dumpling” soup (Gross Knudle). I supposed I could have gathered that but it’s still good to know for sure. It is in fact a big dumpling soup, similar to matzo ball soup.

Great grandma Zinz’s Groesknettlke Soup:
4lb organic chicken (can also make with just beef broth)
2 qt. chicken broth (or beef broth)
2 qt. water
1 yellow onion
3 stalks celery
2 med. carrots
salt to taste

Bring chicken and broth to a boil and then simmer over a couple of hours until meat starts to fall from the bone. Strain the chicken and veggies from the broth and return the broth to the pot on low to stay warm. Keep lid on to prevent liquid from reducing too much. Pull apart the chicken to return to the soup at the end. Pour some liquid over it to prevent it from drying out.
1 cup farina
6 T. crisco (my great grandmother used lard originally)
3 eggs

First cream the shortening and add 1/2 farina. Mix a little bit. Add the eggs and stir until blended (don’t overmix). Add the remainder of the farina until you have a good consistency. I of course didn’t know what “good consistency” meant since it was my first time. Ladle some broth into a bowl and take a small spoonful of the mixture and drop it in. If it starts to disintegrate, you need to add more farina. I ended up having to add a bit more. I think it’s ok if it disintegrates a little bit but you want it to hold its shape overall.

Let the mixture stand for 5 min. Drop by teaspoon into the broth that is warm but not boiling. I formed them into quenelles with two spoons to give them a bit more of a dumpling shape. My grandmother (who was very superstitious) adds a note here NOT to count the dumplings as you drop them in as it is bad luck.

Let the soup come to a boil and then add 1/2 cup cold water. Boil at medium heat until the dumplings are done and soft inside (about 10 min on medium boil). The funny thing about old family recipes is that they weren’t trying to publish cookbooks. The recipes assume you already know what things should taste like. Measurements weren’t really exact. I didn’t know what “done” meant for the dumplings and ended up serving them to my friends a little underdone on Friday night, chalking it up to my first attempt. When my husband got home later, they were perfect. They just needed a little more time.

The dumplings should just about double in size and should hold their shape but be the same soft consistency the whole way through (like matzo ball soup). The only way to tell is to try one.

Another note from my grandmother reassures me that even her mother made hard dumplings once in awhile. Overall it is a delicious soup and easy to make. I’m going to make it my mission to make my great grandmother proud and keep this recipe in my family.

a start to unfolding my family history

June 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

This gorgeous photo is of my dad’s mother when she was a little girl. This week has been one of the most overwhelming weeks I’ve done yet but also the most fulfilling. Coming up on my halfway point for this project, there have been a lot of interesting things I’ve learned about myself, but none has been as fundamental as gaining a better understanding of where I came from.

This week was just the beginning in learning more about my family for me. When you start looking into these things you just want to learn more. It can be hard because sometimes you just have names and dates. You find yourself at dead ends. There are so many questions that seem unanswerable.

I definitely finished this week with an appreciation for how important it is to document your ancestry. If you don’t do it and ask the questions, no one else will. Just sitting down and talking with my parents I heard much more than I ever knew. is a good place to start since they have all kinds of public records you can view. It was amazing to see my great grandparents on the census. We were lucky in my family that there were lots of artifacts on both sides. My dad’s aunt had put together a photo book for us that went back pretty far. We had a lot of old photos and letters from my mother’s side.

Another source of inspiration is the show Who Do You Think You Are on NBC. You can watch old episodes here.

I started the week thinking I would be simply tracing my lineage, but I ended it with new stories and a window into myself and where some of the traits I have are from. I can’t think of a more valuable way to spend a week.

good people

June 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

It has been great spending time with my family this week and looking through all the artifacts we have from both sides. I’ve heard lots of stories I hadn’t heard before. It’s overwhelming to make sense of it all. One clear sense of my family I’ve taken away this week is that on both sides there was a strong desire to be good people.

It’s probably what any average, decent family wants, right? This week I heard stories that made me realize what an important guiding principle being good was for my family. As with any family, both sides had their issues, but they believed in their word, in family, hard work and above all, looking out for each other.

I never knew my dad’s father and to be honest we didn’t talk much about him; it was a painful subject because he died so young. He was a smoker and died of lung cancer in 1971 before I was born. My dad shared a story with me this week that demonstrates he was not only a fun guy to be around but that he had a lot of integrity.

Card playing was a pretty popular pastime as my parents were growing up and his father taught him the art of Poker. He saw it as a game that taught you a lot about other people’s character. They had a game one night with a few friends and a couple of guys from his dad’s office. At some point my dad and a friend discovered one of the office guys had cheated and they gave him back his money he came with (even though he had lost a bit), his coat and politely wished him well on his way. The next day my grandfather apparently went to the HR department and had him fired because he said he didn’t want a cheat working for him on his sales team.

On both sides of my family trust and integrity were paramount and still are. You did what you said you would do. Your word meant something. There were no cheats.

The other overarching theme I saw this week was that of love. Despite great odds, my family always stuck together. Despite the chaos of living through war, the Depression and starting over with nothing, it’s obvious from the pictures left behind my family always had their priorities in the right place, with family. They were there for each other.

They made time for each other and didn’t allow the frequent demands of life to take that away. I was struck by what difficult times people went through back then but I also was envious of how much simpler things seemed to be compared to the unrelenting demands of the workplace today. Advertising can especially require one to suspend the idea of family and free time.

I’d like to hope I’m on the right path to becoming half the person some of my relatives were. The further I get away from working in advertising, the better I feel about that, but right now it pays the bills. For me it comes down to finding something that allows me to live my life on my own terms and have the ability to look out for myself and my family.

I know I’m onto something “gooder”.

Family and Faith

June 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

Looking back at all the pictures of my ancestors this week, it’s been striking see physical traits that have been passed down. My dad looks just like his great grandfather. You can see expressions and bits and pieces that resemble the rest of my family now. Aside from the physical traits, I’ve also been able to see the invisible traits, in particular, Faith. Above is a picture of my maternal great grandfather’s Bible he used as a Baptist minister in a German enclave in Pennsylvania.

Supposedly he wanted to be an actor back in the Austro-Hungarian empire but it didn’t pan out. He was a restless soul who needed an outlet. An opportunity presented itself to immigrate to the US to study in the seminary. Who knows if he only saw it as an opportunity to get closer to an acting dream at the time. What we do know is that that decision fundamentally changed his life. Not only did he adopt a new country but a new way of life. He became a minister, married a wonderful woman and had nine children. My mother is pictured on my great grandmother’s lap:

I wish I could have known my great grandfather. What struck me was just how much everyone who knew him loved him. Beyond the walls of the church and preaching of doctrine he lived his Faith in a way that had a lasting impact on others. My mother remembers going around with him to bring food to people in their community who had nothing, even though he had little himself, mainly living from their garden and animals they kept.

What was interesting in hearing my mom talk about him is how much it reminded me of how I felt about his daughter, my grandmother (below). She was also just a loving, generous person who always thought of others. She would literally shop for Christmas presents year round for every person she knew. She was someone who I always felt so much love from when I was around her. I used to think it was just because she was a fun, kind grandmother. It struck me though listening to my mother that what I also may have been experiencing was being around my grandma’s Faith. She would always say she wanted to be like her dad was with his Faith and how he was toward others. From what I experienced and from observing how others felt about her she succeeded.

Religion is something that’s come in and out of my life over the years. I didn’t go to church that often as a kid but became more involved when we moved to the Bible Belt. I fell out of the practice of going to church and reading the Bible from my mid-20s on. I especially remember traveling around India one Summer feeling conflicted about the idea one religion could be more valid than another. As I’ve slowed down from working all the time to living in a beautiful place like Colorado, it has reminded me of that sense of peace I felt being around my grandmother.

My mother & sisters and I often say we hope to be like her in our own lives. Maybe what that means is to live with a little Faith. This week, I’ve definitely grown to appreciate what’s gotten me to where I am in a new light. I look at my great grandfather coming to the US with nothing, raising 9 children in such a happy home. I look at my grandmother who raised my Mom while my grandfather was away in WWII, not knowing if he’d ever come back. It is so clear to me now that they had Faith.

family, love and War

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

When you look back at your ancestry, it’s hard to know what people were like when you don’t have anyone to tell you their stories. One overarching theme on both sides of my family I can discern is that their lives were impacted by war.

The picture above is from my Dad’s side. One great grandfather (left) served in WWI in France for 15 months and was wounded twice, then confined to an army hospital for several months. The other (middle) also served in WWI in the cavalry. My grandfather (right) was in the service during WWII.

My Dad then enlisted in the Marines Corps reserves during the Vietnam War, getting proper training vs leaving it up to chance in getting drafted with poor training. Luckily he never had to serve overseas. He recalls in his family, involvement in the military was out of sense of duty. His grandfathers and father then continued that sense of duty in successful careers as a head of a glass cutting union , a Sheriff and a sales manager and secretary of a manufacturing company.

I can remember my maternal Grandfather talking about his experience in WWII, although I was too young to appreciate or take note of it at the time. Above are the dog tags he wore as well as the locket he bought for my grandmother while he was away for 3 years in North Africa and Europe. My Mom was two weeks old when he left and 3 years old when she really met her father for the first time.

The most amazing artifact we still have of any from our ancestors are all the letters my grandparents wrote to each other during WWII. Hundreds of them from 3 years of separation and not knowing if they’d ever see each other again. In many, life simply went on about its business. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but it is incredible to read my grandfather asking about my infant mother and professing how happy he was to have a girl. While it was too difficult for him to show it in his life, it was obvious he loved her very much.

Lucky for me, my family came out unscathed. I try to imagine what I would do in their situations. I’m lucky my husband works in advertising and I need to remind myself when he often is on the road now that it could be much worse.

I wonder also what effects of living with war in the way my ancestors did has made its way to me. I would say the importance of family and making the most of the time you have together is one. A sense of character would be another. My Mom just stepped back in the room and said I’m a fighter. Maybe not in the warrior sense of the word but I guess she’s right. Overall, I’d say when it comes to war I’d like to hope there are other means that will be on the table we can employ to achieve peace and prosperity moving forward.

embracing the American dream

June 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Like many Americans, I’ve had an inkling of where my family can be traced back to, and I’ve always associated myself most with a German heritage. After going through the record of my ancestry my sister spent months pulling together, I was only half right. From my mother’s side of the family it is German including German towns within the Austro-Hungarian empire. However, on my Dad’s side, we’re from France and Switzerland. Surprisingly, I’ve never associated myself with being from either one of those places.

On the surface it’s easy to say why. I was born in Erie, PA and lived there until I was 11. I was exposed to more of my German-descended relatives and also to Pennsylvania German culture. Looking at my family tree, there’s more to it. A lot has to do with when my ancestors immigrated to the United States. My Dad’s side has a much longer history here back to the early 1800’s as well as the early 1700’s. I’m more than 5 generations removed, whereas on my Mom’s side, I’m only the 3rd generation. Fewer things have been lost along the way

In talking with both of my parents, they also believe there was more of a mindset of embracing the future rather than the past. It was important to assimilate, learn English and get an education in both families. My sister found a quote my grandmother had written on a family history that sums up how she saw it:

“I thank God I live in a country where dreams can come true, where failure is sometimes the first step to success, and where success is only another form of failure if we forget where our priorities should be”

My ancestors didn’t come here to hold onto where they came from but instead to dream about what lay ahead. The picture above is my great grandfather’s family. He’s not pictured as one of the siblings because he left to come to America and start his own life, soon to meet and marry my great grandmother and have 9 children of which my grandmother was one of the youngest.

I’m sure they missed him but wished him well.

Who do I come from?

June 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

Part of this project is figuring out more about myself and thanks to my sister Amity’s efforts, I can now look back at how my ancestry might have shaped who I am. It’s easy for me to mark the influence my grandparents on my mother’s side have had on me because I grew up knowing them well and spending a lot of time with them. It’s harder to know what I’ve inherited beyond them from other sides of my family. My other grandfather died before I was born and I didn’t see my Dad’s mother very much. She passed away when I was 12.

I often find myself noticing more and more traits coming out in me as an adult that remind me of my parents. As with anything, there’s good and bad. This week I want to explore my ancestry to see what my family was like and how some of their traits made their way down to me.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to go back in time and meet some of them when they were my age. Would I see myself in them? Would we have the same temperament? The same ideals? Inevitably the world they lived in was markedly different than now, especially in the roles of women, but I wonder if there would be any underlying similarities?

Where Am I?

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