Collecting Geneva’s Food Traditions

March 24th, 2023
A group of four men and three women in formal clothes posing for the camera.

My grandparents pose with their parents on their wedding day in 1926.

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

Growing up, food traditions in my family were limited. My parents married later in life and my mother never really learned to be a homemaker before she had a husband and children to feed. Cooking was not something she was particularly fond of, although she had a sweet tooth and liked baked goods. She came by it honestly, as her mother, my grandmother, made terrific chocolate chip cookies. The only other food memory I have from my maternal family is the favorite lunch of Campbell’s Tomato Soup with buttered Ritz crackers floating on the surface and a potluck Jello ring with cream cheese balls. Our family food traditions came more from the Betty Crocker tradition than from any wider cultural background. I don’t know much about my mother’s maternal ancestors. I believe they were Irish and French Canadian and had been here long enough not to have direct immigrant experience. My maternal grandfather was the child of German immigrants. I’ve heard that he refused to speak German. He was born in 1898, and I’ve often wondered if American animosity towards Germany during World War I led him to reject his German culture, including food. Or perhaps it was just that my grandmother couldn’t cook his family’s recipes. Either way, no ethnic foods came to me through my parents, as the food history on my Irish-American father’s side is even sparser.

Compare that to my husband’s Italian-immigrant grandmother, who made pasta from scratch, handed down recipes for lentil soup and tomato sauce, and was renowned among her grandchildren for her pizzelles. His grandfather grew grapes for wine and had a garden full of produce unfamiliar to his American neighbors. I had never had lentils or fennel or homemade tomato sauce before I met my husband. Much more of a cook than my mother, I now enjoy many of my in-laws’ food traditions, even though I never met the woman who was the source of the recipes. Stories of her still come up when we eat these foods, as they are now part of our family history.

A group of men, women and children sitting and standing around a picnic table covered with bottles and dishes.

Families at a Geneva Forge company picnic.

Food traditions like these tell the stories of people as much as letters and diaries do. My family food traditions tell the story of immigrant assimilation and the industrialization of our food supply. My husband’s family history shows how immigrant groups have maintained their ethnic food traditions, some of which later evolved into commonplace American dishes.

A book cover titled Geneva's Treasures of Personal Recipes complied by the Marine Corps League Auxiliary William M. Harding Unit, Geneva, NY.

One of the community cookbooks currently in our Archive Collection.

At Historic Geneva, we are interested in collecting Geneva food stories and recipes to help us tell these stories. In conjunction with the current exhibit Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Food and Beverages in Geneva, we are asking the local community to contribute recipes and the stories associated with them to our Archival Collection. Our collection currently includes photos and artifacts associated with restaurants and food businesses and some cookbooks produced by local organizations or individuals. We would like to add more recent information to the collection from families and food businesses in Geneva today. Recipes could be for traditional foods that connect family members to special events or ethnic heritage—a dish for a holiday, a special birthday cake, or the favorite pasta sauce from the home country. They could also be dishes made with local ingredients or products unique to the Finger Lakes. We also welcome donations of cookbooks produced by local organizations like churches and service clubs that feature local recipes

A recipe for Porcupines by Dorothy DeCamp.

This recipe for Porcupine Meatballs was one of the community contributions to the Geneva’s Treasures cookbook.

If enough recipes are submitted, we plan to assemble them in a printed or digital form available to the public. Our interest is in what ties the recipe to this region, and what makes it meaningful. Submissions are due by June 2, 2023.

To contribute recipes, email them with the subject line Recipe Project to Submissions can also be mailed to 543 South Main Street, Geneva, NY 14456. Please include your name and some information about the recipe and why it matters to you or your family, as well as how it connects to Geneva. For questions or further information, call me or Rebecca Petropoulos at 315-789-5151.

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