It’s not every day that you get an email from someone offering to research your family tree. When Melisa reached out to me about being a part of her new series, I was a little baffled and then really excited. The premise was this: she would research my family tree for me, and then I would illustrate it and she would post an interview with me on her blog, going into some detail about my blog, my day job, and my interests in food and art and how they relate to my family history. I would also share a family recipe. How fascinating! I emailed her back right away and said I was all in.
This project really excited me because I didn’t know much about my family history at all. It seems like there are so many large families around me who know all about their ancestry, and meanwhile I come from a fairly small family (at least with my most recent relatives) and we had only an inkling of where we might have come from in the world. It turns out our suspicions were correct: My brothers and I are a major mish-mash of European descent, with our sixteen great-great-grandparents coming from a combination of England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Sweden. I’m a European mutt. I illustrated my family tree going back to those great-great-grandparents, which you can see at the top of the post. It doesn’t include any siblings, just a direct line to me. (You can click the illustration to see a larger version.)
ART IN MY FAMILY HISTORY
It’s interesting how you can grow up acquiring skills, with your interests leaning in a certain direction, only to find out later that it was basically pre-determined. One of my earliest memories of drawing is in my kindergarten class. I was trying to draw firemen, a firetruck and a building, and I was having so much trouble getting it to look right. Well, obviously – I was 5 years old. People didn’t have elbows and the building probably slanted to the left. But, I remember that I CARED. The same way I cared when I was a little older and I spent an entire afternoon trying to draw a clown perfectly. My mom probably thought I was crazy. I distinctly remember having to walk away from the drawing a few times and come back to it because I was so frustrated. I wasn’t drawing just to play with crayons or to scribble on paper; I was trying to create a piece of art. The same way when I sat down at my grandparents’ piano (which was actually my great-grandfather’s piano), I wasn’t just pounding on the keys, but delicately moving my fingers up and down the keyboard as if I was playing a song. This was a detail my father remembered when I was in second grade and I cried after learning they had sold that piano (due to my grandparents moving to a nursing home), and then my wonderful parents bought that piano BACK from a nice man so we could have it in our home. That’s how I started taking piano lessons.
I’ve always been the “artsy” one. In second grade I decided I wanted to be an “artist” when I grew up, or rather a children’s book illustrator. (I talk about that in a little more detail here.) There was a day in third grade when some of my classmates decided I was the authority on whether or not people should color with their lines going all in one direction. (???! Let’s also consider that a sign that I would become a resident assistant in college.) But it’s not surprising, really – I would come to realize that my family has a much stronger background in the arts than your average family.
My grandfather, Robert Lenton (who went by his middle name, Warren), worked in a laboratory but pursued a passion for watercolor in retirement. He was very talented, and his paintings grace the walls of my parents’ home as well as my own apartment. I think he would particularly enjoy my #commute series of paintings on here, and it would probably blow his mind that I do all of that “painting” on the computer. My father, his son, is a writer and can also draw very well, although he’s never pursued that in any major way. My dad is musically gifted, too – he plays drums and sings in a band in his spare time. We also discovered recently that my grandfather’s cousin (also Robert Lenton) was extremely artsy as well, with careers as a classical musician, painter, craft-store owner and puppeteer.
Both of my grandfathers had an interest in photography, and that has trickled its way down (all the way to me now that I’ve begun taking my own blog photos, rather than Robert, my photographer husband). My uncle Bill on my mom’s side (who took our lovely wedding photos) has had interests spanning across the arts, including painting, drawing, photography and music, etc. A few years ago, like many people, he was laid off from his job and has since successfully turned his photography hobby into a full-time career. My eldest brother, Colin, is a professional photographer as well, and he actually got his start by messing around with our grandfather’s (Robert Lenton’s) old camera. My other brother, Jesse, is talented with photography, painting and drawing as well, although he has not chosen to pursue them professionally. My cousin (uncle Bill’s son), is currently working towards a career in the graphic arts as he is about to graduate from college.
So as you can see, the arts run rampant through my family on BOTH sides. It’s no huge surprise that I ended up where I am now, with a day job in my field, working as a graphic artist for a memorial company, and combining my loves for food and art through this weird blog thing.
FOOD IN MY FAMILY HISTORY
Although I think I’ve always been defined (in a way) by my artistic abilities (in addition to being an athlete and a musician growing up), I feel like my interest in food is what truly defines me at this point in my life. Art is just something I’ve always done; it’s a part of me. It’s always been a natural gift, not something I’ve had to work too hard for. Food is an interest I developed later on and it’s something I’ve had to work for. I didn’t even know how to work a gas burner when I had my first apartment in college, but now here I am with a food blog, pretending like I have the authority to create recipes, but somehow I’m doing it.
Also, as I’ve explained, art is nothing special in my family. On the flip side, I don’t think there’s anyone in my family who’s ever loved food and cooking the way that I do, in this all-consuming-I’m-going-to-talk-to-the-internet-about-it way. But, I did grow up in a family that ate a home-cooked meal together every night (thanks Mom), and my parents grew up in families like that, too. I don’t have strong memories of anyone cooking except my mom, because unfortunately all of my grandparents either passed away when I was fairly young or were not physically able to cook much anyway. However, my mom does bust out “family recipes” from time to time that her mother and my father’s mother used to make as they were growing up. (In fact, my parents have known each other since they were young and started dating when they were 15 and 16, so they actually grew up together, eating family dinners with each other often.)
A FAMILY RECIPE
When I asked my mom what she thought of as being a classic recipe in our family, she thought of her mom’s (“Grandmom’s”) coleslaw. Grandmom used to make a big dinner every Sunday, and she would always make this coleslaw, shredding it by hand. I do remember it being on the table a lot when I was a kid, especially when my grandma was still around (my mom was making it at the time), but that was back in the era when I didn’t like coleslaw. I can officially vouch for it now and tell you it’s delicious (and the recipe is below).
When my mom emailed me this recipe, which she had written on an old recipe card years ago, I was a little confused. I responded to her email saying, “This recipe seems to be missing some parts … How much cabbage? How much mayo? Do you just dump this all in a bowl and mix it around? What’s up with this?” It was just a list of ingredients with vague amounts and no instructions. My mom had a chuckle about this and responded, explaining that when she got this recipe from my grandma, she really had to force her to think about it. Grandmom did it so often that it was pure habit. My grandma also got a kick out of my mom always wanting strict recipes for everything. I should note here that I get my mathematical brain from my mom, hence my desire for precise recipes (although I have relaxed a bit on that front since marrying the son of a chef).
I tested this recipe out the way I would for any recipe on this blog, so it’s written for you below with instructions for how I thought it tasted best. But you might like it with more mayo or more relish (the secret ingredient), so feel free to make it your own. I don’t think Grandmom would care.
A few years ago we stumbled upon a real treasure in an old box of my grandparents’ belongings: the diary belonging to my grandmother, Ruth Lenton (aka “Mom Mom”), from 1946. This was during the time she started dating my grandfather, “Warren L.” (aka “Pop Pop”), and it seems as though she was dating the rest of the men in town as well. (She must have been a real catch!) You can see one of my favorite entries (from June 18th) in the scan below, but I’ll transcribe it for you here in case it’s difficult to read:
Went to work. Worked ’till 9pm. Came out of work and Randle “Kokie” was waiting for me. Home around ten. Warren L. called me and came around. Told him Randle met me after work and also saw him on Monday night. Warren told me then that he saw me with Randle Monday – Boy is he ever mad. Sat on front steps talking ’till 12. Kissed me twice. He sure is wonderful.
Haha! I love that. She calls him “swell” in a few entries, and on the next page we find out that Warren L. asked her to be his “steady girl.” The diary is fairly quiet for the next few months, but then on Labor Day weekend she goes to Wildwood, NJ for the day with Warren’s family and claims it was the “best weekend she’s ever spent.” I believe they were married in the fall of 1947. How lucky are we to have this little story of my grandfather sweeping my grandmother off her feet in favor of every other guy in Philadelphia? He must have been a catch as well. I know I always liked him – I get my sweet tooth from him and my grandmother, Mary Ecklund (“Grandmom”). He kept a container of M&Ms stashed under his car seat at all times.
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This blog post is a wonderful example of the craziness of the internet. I never would have expected to make a connection like this, learning so much about my family thanks to someone who stumbled upon my little food blog. Melisa and I are actually hoping to meet in person in Chicago when I’m there in November for the BlogHer Food Conference so we can bond over our shared love for fancy cocktails.
So, thank you SO MUCH Melisa – for reaching out to me and doing such a great job of finding out more about my family history. This is truly valuable information that my family will cherish, and you’ve helped me to realize some important things about my background and how I’ve gotten to where I am now.
Be sure to check out her post to learn more about this series she’s starting and to read her full interview with me. (And don’t forget about my grandma’s recipe for coleslaw, which is below.)
If you’re looking to find out more about your own ancestry, Melisa is available for hire and I would strongly recommend her. She is an absolute joy to work with, and her enthusiasm for this stuff is refreshing. Thanks again, Melisa!
I’ve always loved cake.
- 1 small head of cabbage or ½ of a large one, shredded (approx. 8 cups)
- 2 cups shredded carrot (from about 2 large carrots, or the matchstick variety)
- 2 tsp sweet relish
- 3 tbsp granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- 5 tbsp mayonnaise
- ½ tsp coarse kosher salt
- Combine the cabbage and carrots in a large bowl.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and toss to combine. (You might want to start with 3 tbsp mayonnaise and work your way up as needed.)
- Taste and adjust seasonings and mayonnaise amounts to suit your preferences.
- Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator.