by Alison Salisbury. Salisbury is an English major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2007 class "Folklife in America."
Food is an integral part of my family’s tradition and sense of unity as a folk group. Holidays are filled with our favorite dishes, and the kitchen serves as the hub of each of our houses. Recipes tracing from my great-grandparents always remind the family of our roots and of how traditions have changed over the years. Regardless of how far apart we live today, family dishes bring us together and spur the desire to share memories of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and of childhood experiences on the family farm that many of the younger generations may never have. One recipe in particular – homemade noodles with chicken and gravy served over mashed potatoes – is nearly always present at family events and is the most iconic and enduring of any meal. Certainly, it may sound a bit slimy and far too Midwestern to an outsider, but it is comfort food for our family. The noodle board and the cookbook that now houses the noodle recipe are folk objects very close to each of us – they represent many spoken and unspoken traditions and memories, and enable the continuation of our family dishes.
Pauline Travis, my great-grandmother, was born in Ohio in 1913 and lived there for about twelve years. After growing up in Ohio, she moved to the tiny farming town of Shepherd, Michigan, where noodle-making would later come to be an integral part of our family tradition. In her adult life, Pauline married Chester, my great-grandfather, and lived on a farm just down the road from the one all of us would later call “the homestead”. The farm life was certainly not easy – their daughter and my grandmother, Zora, did not have running water at home for the first sixteen years of her life. When Zora was sixteen, Pauline and Chester bought the farm down the road that they had admired for years and established a home that still remains in the family. It was here that Pauline began to make her famous noodles. The original noodle board was made by a family friend that Chester knew through his woodworking. Chester and Pauline had always admired the board, and it was given to them when the friend died. The board had ideal construction for rolling out noodles – there is a lip on the bottom so that it can hook onto a flat surface and will not slide while you roll the dough. There are also raised edges on three sides of the top to prevent flour from spilling off the board. To ease the process of rolling, the noodle board is covered with flour, as is the rolling pin. The size of the board is fairly large, but has the perfect dimensions to roll out the dough made from the servings listed in the recipe. If the dough is rolled to the appropriate thin level, the dough should fill up the entire board, and may even require slicing in half and re-rolling separately, as I did.
The history of the noodle board after it was given to Pauline and Chester is tinged a bit with mystery and anonymity, mirroring the nature of folklore and folk objects. Today, we do not know what happened to the original noodle board – Chester was so impressed by the board that he made an identical copy, utilizing his woodworking skills. This copy is most likely the noodle board that the grandchildren saw Pauline making noodles on growing up, but there’s no way to know for sure. None of the noodle boards were signed, so there is no way to identify the maker. Zora also has a noodle board and is working to pass the tradition of noodle-making on to me and her other grandchildren. Chester died years ago, and when Pauline died last summer, all of their possessions were left up to the children and grandchildren in the will. My dad went to Michigan for Pauline’s funeral last summer, and Zora’s brothers Dean and Cecil read the provision in the will that each of Pauline’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were to take one item from the house as a keepsake. My dad immediately thought of the noodle board – he stayed at the farm during the summers as a child, and remembered watching Pauline, his grandmother, prepare his favorite noodles and biscuits on that board. He first found a pancake griddle for my brother along with a milk pitcher for me, and then finally found the noodle board. Choosing that as his keepsake was also a sort of impetus for him to learn the family tradition – my dad had never actually made noodles before acquiring the board, but is now learning to continue my great-grandmother’s memory, and to just keep putting out delicious meals.
Through the generations, the process of making and preparing the noodles has maintained certain key elements, but it has also taken on new forms. This exemplifies the dual laws of dynamism and conservatism in folklore. My great-grandparents’ preparation of the noodles was drastically different than my method. Although many of the same ingredients were used, the source of these ingredients and their purpose have changed with our family’s evolving lifestyle through time and the availability of certain resources. Pauline and Chester did not have very much money, and they had to make the most of their livestock on the farm. For many years, they had their own chickens and used these in their cooking. The chicken and noodle dish was used in a similar way as hash used to be – every last bit of the chicken was thrown into the broth and stewed to make it edible in order to maximize their resources. Pauline made noodle dishes very frequently as a staple food, so the quality of the meat used was not always consistent, but whatever was available. The dish was also sometimes made with beef that Chester stewed and canned from cattle on the farm.
The one consistent element of the dish, whatever meat it is prepared with, is that the noodles are made as Pauline did (disregarding thickness). Pauline and Chester’s children put their own individual signatures on the dish, otherwise – Dean prefers to prepare venison and noodles, Gale prefers beef and noodles, and Zora always makes her noodles thicker, but sticks with the original chicken and noodle recipe. Also, the purpose of the meal when Zora makes it is much different. Pauline and Chester depended on this recipe as a fairly cheap way to make the most of their food resources. Now, Zora prepares the dish at family gatherings (mostly holidays) as a way to remember and honor her parents. It is not a necessary staple food now, in the time of packaged pasta, but a way to remember their cooking and lifestyle.
Just as Zora learned to make noodles by watching her mother prepare them in the kitchen, I learned with my cousins by making them with Zora in her kitchen in Baltimore. By learning the recipe informally in this manner, it is much easier to pick up on the unwritten tricks to making good noodles than reading an arbitrary recipe out of a cookbook. Also, this fosters a feeling of continuity between the generations in our family and of an ongoing tradition that, though it does change from person to person, still represents the spirit of our family by honoring our Midwestern farming roots. Since I am a few generations down from the source of the noodle-making, I have been exposed to several different methods and unique signatures on the dish. I prefer to make the noodles a bit thicker like Zora’s, but keep the meat as chicken. Some people in our family eat just the noodles, chicken, and broth as stew by itself, but I like it over mashed potatoes, mostly because that is what I was always served as a child. Today, we use store-bought chicken and organic milk in the recipe, instead of the products Pauline and Chester used off their own farm.
Beginning to study the formal versus informal aspect of folklore prompted me to consider our family cookbook, The Family Feast, as a potential gray area in that dichotomy. The book is formatted much like a formal cookbook, with a table of contents, an index to ingredients, and specific recipes. However, our cookbook was only given to members of the family and requires an insider perspective for the recipes to be appreciated in context. Each of the recipes is attributed to one member of the family or described as a special favorite of a certain member—they may not all be delicious dishes, but they are important in some way to our family dynamic and traditions. For instance, the family cookbook was put out when I was only two years old, but the recipe listed as my favorite is one for twice-baked potatoes. Obviously, I do not remember liking this recipe, but my family swears it was my favorite. An outsider using this cookbook would not care about the connection between the people and the meal. Also, the amounts and instructions given in The Family Feast are not exact. There are always tricks to the recipes and additional steps learned by cooking with a family member, not by reading it out of the book. Thus, even though the family cookbook is printed and somewhat formal in structure, the content pays particular attention to context and understands the insider perspective, making it a valid aspect of folklore.
The study of the noodle board, the recipe itself, and the family cookbook have provided a unique view of family folklore. I have seen first-hand the changes that traditions undergo through generations, but also the unifying power of common history. Food is a tangible medium through which to express certain beliefs, honor the past, and solidify a group. As I age, my preparation of the chicken and noodle dish will most likely change, and I will be an active participant in placing my individual stamp on the evolution of our family folklore. Without the rich tradition of food, I would probably not be aware of many of the stories about our family history. Family members always seem to be more willing to share bits of our past when we are together, sharing food that connects us to it. Folklore is present in my everyday life in this way, and I would not have such a developed appreciation for my family otherwise.