Persistence in Folkways

Heather Cox Richardson

My sister makes the world’s best baked stuffed lobster. She learned to make it from watching our mother who, in turn, learned how from her father. But Kath has a problem. She has tried for years to get someone else in the family to learn how to make the lobsters. No one will (not least because of just how gruesome the process is, something that my marine biologist sister handles with none of the squeamishness the rest of us show). She warns us that she will take the recipe to her grave if no one will learn how to prepare it.

She might well be right, but another recipe that has come to light recently suggests that recipes do persist in communities even when lost by their originators. About thirty-five years ago, a friend’s grandmother, who lived on a nearby island, served me a blueberry cake made with molasses. She didn’t have a recipe, but she gave me approximate amounts and I wrote them down as “Gram’s Blueberry Cake.”

In my parent’s house is a shelf of local cookbooks that cover the years from the 1890s to the present. I read them occasionally; I find it fascinating to see how eating patterns change over time. I was interested to see recently that what I discovered as Gram’s Blueberry Cake has showed up repeatedly in cookbooks over the years, coming from different households. As it turns out, the woman who submitted the recipe to the local cookbook in one of its earliest appearances was one of my relatives.

Whether or not Kath’s recipe for baked stuffed lobster will come around to our great-grandchildren by way of someone else remains to be seen, but the persistence of the unusual blueberry cake recipe brings to mind an issue I’ve wondered about lately: the persistence of folkways in communities.

David Hackett Fischer explored this persistence in Albion’s Seed, when he traced the origins of four American folkways to four different European migrations. Malcolm Gladwell put great emphasis on it in Outliers, suggesting that the different experiences of various immigrant groups in America could be traced to their cultural heritage. More recently, Slate highlighted a study suggesting that modern-day German anti-Semitism bears a direct correlation to whether or not those same communities murdered their Jewish populations during the Black Death in the 14th century.

Frankly, I always found these arguments about such extreme cultural persistence farfetched. At least in the modern world, it’s hard to imagine that the forces of change do not outweigh cultural continuity over the course of even one generation, let alone hundreds of years. Even ubiquitous human conditions like racism change rapidly to reflect changing anxieties, making it hard to argue that even they reveal cultural continuity on anything but such a macro level that they have very little explanatory power.

But my recipes give me pause. If they have lived for a hundred years by word of mouth, what else has? What about attitudes and prejudices? Surely they persist, too, and surely they are crucially important when forming political affiliations, for example. But how do we, as historians, grapple with such intangible cultural artifacts in a meaningful way?