Writing, Food, and Family History

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Sometimes writing triggers an unexpected trip down memory lane for me. These little side voyages are often inspired by simple things that bring a wealth of almost-forgotten memories to light. This happened recently while working on my second children’s adventure novel in the Sir Kaye the Boy Knight series. It’s called The Lost Castle Treasure. With just a simple sentence, I took a mental trip back in time that involved writing, food, and family history.

In one scene of the story, a frightened boy named Reggie rushes headlong down some stairs. At the bottom, he trips over his own feet and rolls head over heels across a room. Red-faced and out of breath, Reggie looks up. He sees the castle cook and three kitchen boys staring down at him. Then the cook asks, “Well, Master Reggie, what brings you to the kitchen?”

Embarrassed, Reggie blurts out the only thing he can think of to explain his sudden arrival. “Do you have anything to eat?” he asks.

And that was the takeoff point for my trip down memory lane.

When I was a boy, my neighborhood friends and I expended tremendous amounts of energy playing outside. We were always exploring, bike riding, digging holes (another story), playing football, and hundreds of other things. When you use that much energy you just have to refuel. Frequently. So every few hours, one of our unfortunate mothers would discover several red-faced, grass-stained, mud-caked boys standing in her doorway and demanding, “Is there anything to eat?”

Although we tried to be fair and invade each house in turn, my house was always last on the list. In all the other homes there would be popsicles, Cheetos, moon pies—the usual junk food type snacks. In my house? A popsicle or a moon pie would be considered heresy! For a quick snack my mother offered apples or bananas or some other seasonal fruit we had on hand. If we were really hungry, there was always a pan of kibbeh in the fridge, which I particularly loved. But my friends? Not so much.

I can see Reggie loving kibbeh too. It’s a middle eastern dish of fried, stuffed meatballs made of spices, ground meat, and bulgur wheat. Here’s a recipe for kibbeh which might help explain it a little better, although my family’s recipe was slightly different. My grandfather put his own spin on it.

Both of my parents were excellent cooks and there was always a wide variety of different types of food available. At a very young age I experienced ethnic, even exotic foods that many adults at the time had never tried.

A black and white photo of my dad outside his deli in downtown Tulsa in the late forties/early fifties. In this blog I explore the ties between writing, food, and family history.
Outside the deli.

In the nineteen-forties and early fifties my dad owned and operated Edewinns Delicatessen in downtown Tulsa. In addition to the standard deli fare, he developed many of his own recipes. He was even granted a US Patent for an invention that he called “Cheez-Dillites.” These were big, hollowed-out, cheese-stuffed dill pickles. The patent was granted for the process he used to make them.

A black and white photo of my dad inside his deli. In this blog I explore the ties between writing, food, and family history.
My dad inside his deli.

My mother loved to cook as well. She had an almost uncanny ability to discern every ingredient (including spices) in whatever she tasted. She came by it honestly. Her father had been a master chef in his younger years. My grandfather emigrated to the US just prior to WWI. To his chagrin, he ended up a cook in the US Army during the war. During the Great Depression he was always able to find work as a chef. He worked in some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the northeastern United States. By the time I was born he was semi-retired and owned a chain of stores in Battle Creek, Michigan. It’s amazing what talent and a lot of hard work can get you.

So inspired by my grandfather, I am working very hard on my books too. But while writing, thinking about food and family history made me ask a few questions about food throughout history.

For instance, when it comes to food today, some parts of the world have an abundance. Many of us have access to practically any food at any time of year thanks to refrigeration and fast transportation. We can buy fresh cherries at the grocery store in January, and winter greens all summer long.

But what about during medieval times? Back then, food choices depended more on seasonal availability. And there were limited ways to store and transport food.

Food is a very important part of the Sir Kaye series (just ask Reggie!). So I wanted to have a better understanding of food and cooking in the Middle Ages.  How did they manage without refrigeration?  What kinds of food and spices did they consider staples?  What were some of the common recipes of the time?

In my next blog I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about food in the Middle Ages. I will even try my hand at one of Reggie’s favorite recipes—meat pie. I’m confident that, unlike my boyhood neighbors, you’ll enjoy what I’ve cooked up for us. Thanks for sharing my trip down memory lane with writing, food, and family history.

Learn about the Award-winning Sir Kaye series by Don M. Winn. Great for reluctant readers. Also by Don M. Winn, Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.