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Tracing Your Family’s Food Roots

by Rosemary A. Chorzempa, excerpted and expanded from the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 19, 1993

Researching and preserving your family’s culinary roots can be rewarding, whether you just sample foods at ethnic neighborhood festivals or make tracking down your great-grandmother’s recipes a life-long hobby.

When recording information about your family’s culinary history, always start by sharing a recipe and a bit of family lore connected to that food. For example, Larry Chorzempa can’t eat chicken soup and kluski without thinking about the last time his grandmother plucked a chicken. Whenever Busia Pokrywka prepared czarnina, she made chicken soup just for Larry.

She always brought home live chickens to butcher and clean, but this time Busia couldn’t bring herself to kill this one. With Busia and Larry’s mother looking on and crying, a neighbor wrung the chicken’s neck for them. That was in 1955 and it was the last time Busia brought home a live chicken.

If you are researching your family’s genealogy, ask relatives also for family recipes and stories about the food.

When writing the recipes, always include the original version. You may want to include substitutions for some of the ingredients to make a healthier recipe, such as using sugar-free gelatin, ground turkey for beef, margarine instead of butter, and low-fat sour cream.

Whether you compile your family’s culinary history by computer or simply put together a scrapbook, share what you have learned by talking about and cooking these special recipes at family and holiday gatherings.

Store your recipe cards in a photo album with slip-in 4x6 photo pages. Include a recipe with your Christmas cards. Make a cookbook by typing the recipes on a computer. Print the pages and put them in a binder or folder. Find a website (like that prints books for you in any amount, with pictures. The photo album with recipes makes a nice shower or wedding gift. Plan an all-ethnic foods dinner party – using family recipes that your guests will remember from their younger days. Make an old family favorite for your next family reunion and bring copies of the recipe.

I typed up our families’ recipes, many from the 1950s and 1960s and some back to the 1930s, on my computer, in landscape view (longer dimension from left to right) in two columns. I took photos of many of the finished dishes and computer “pasted” them above the recipe. I printed them on 67 lb. cardstock paper, and cut them in half with my paper cutter. I also made colored divider pages with “soups,” “desserts,” etc. and arranged the recipes accordingly. Office Max bound them with a spiral and a clear plastic cover. I have given these books to my children, relatives and friends. Many of the old recipes have brief accompanying stories, making for an interesting cookbook.


5 minute video of Polish food and history in Toledo, Ohio by with Rosemary Chorzempa

Search on for “Polish Food” by FoodCultureCenter” or

Another part of the Polish Foodways Project: go to, search our site for: “Polish-American food” and click on the topic, you will see three pages of story, recipes, a historical timeline, and a link to the video above.