I was recently asked to review a new book by Rebecca Nab Young called There Is Always Room For One More: Volga German Stories and Recipes. At first I didn’t see the connection with eating local Whatcom County ingredients, the theme of this blog, but then I saw the book’s cover photo. I instantly flashed back to the mid-1950s and my early years in Indiana. The multigenerational family, the hairstyles, the big crowded table–everything reminded me of my grandparents’ midwestern farm and the incredible meals my grandmother and other women in the family used to assemble for extended family get-togethers. Then I got the connection–besides being about local food, my blog is about community and a sense of place. It’s also about taking the time to share good food with friends and family, food prepared with love and care, and food that evokes memories. The book is also about food, family, place, and memories.
Author Young begins by briefly telling the story of how German families were first invited to emigrate to the Volga River area of Russia back in the 1760s. She relates how they struggled to build homes and a farming life for many years during the reigns of many Russian rulers, some welcoming and others harsh, and the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of Communism. Finally, in the 1940s when Nazis began to invade Russia, many of the Volga families began leaving for the United States and Canada. Young’s family settled in Wyoming, where the author was born in 1950.
Throughout the rest of the book, Young alternates family stories and family recipes that are related to the stories. The stories range from natural disasters (a severe storm and flood in1955) to significant family events (such as weddings and funerals) to humorous recollections of particular relatives. The interwoven recipes also cover a gamut from typical 1950s fare (Cheesy Hamburger Cups, Chocolate Chiffon Pie, etc.) to practical farm recipes (how to make lye soap, Liver Sausage, etc.) to dishes specific to her family’s German-Russian heritage (Kuchen Suppe, Ein Gemachten Apfel, Kraut Berok).
Young wrote this book mostly for her family, to pass on memories and collect the recipes of her heritage. However, just about anyone who grew up in the United States in the late 1950s and 1960s will find some things in both her stories and her recipes that have a universal ring to them. I was fascinated at the things I remembered about my own family and brief experiences of farm life as a result of reading this book.
Young writes with care and pride about the people in her family–people with imperfections and eccentricities as well as sturdy strength and courage. And doesn’t that describe most of our families? Underlying it all, the foundation of it all, is the food and the way it is inextricably linked to most of the important people, events and places in our lives–or at least, it used to be. The large meals we gathered for were times of catching up on what was happening in others’ lives and of telling and retelling family stories, the hilarious ones as well as the struggles and the turning points. It helped us remember who we were and where we came from.
It made me wonder–what will be the unifying foundation for children growing up with fast food habits? I know our family doesn’t get together anymore for the huge family reunions that characterized my childhood. Families are smaller and we are scattered all over the globe. Most of us have moved around a lot, and there is no longer an established family farm or home to draw us back to our origins. Personally I participate in and sometimes host large gatherings of friends, especially around holidays, and I find those times deeply satisfying. Some of these people are as important to me as family. But still, it’s not the same.
I recommend reading this book as a way of reflecting on the food traditions in your own family. What traditions do you remember? What traditions have you maintained? What do you want your family traditions to be? What recipes do you associate with the main people, places and events in your life? You might find it to be an interesting mental journey. I certainly did.