Thursday, May 26, 2011

"I Have a Photograph"

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph -
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.

I often think of these lines from the Simon and Garfunkel tune “Old Friends” when I muse over old family photos.  Whether snapshots or daguerreotypes, they are indeed a priceless witness to the past, giving us a glimpse of our forebears in their own time and place. The photo at the right, taken around 1915, shows four generations of Mohawk Valley women, with Minnie in the middle. Who are the others peering out at us from the grainy past?


At the top right is Minnie’s mother, Kittie Van Slyke, born February 10, 1868; she married my great-grandfather Fred Fineour 127 years ago this week, in May 1884. When I reach back into my childhood memories, I can still remember Kittie quite clearly; we called her “Grandma Nan.” Kittie was 47 years old at the time the photo was taken.

At the left is Kittie’s mother, Margaret Colson, born December 14, 1840; she married my great-great-grandfather Jonas Van Slyke in June 1864. Margaret is 75 years old in the photo.

On Minnie’s lap is her first child, Margaret, who appears to be a year or less old, allowing us to date the photo around 1915. Minnie herself was about 25 years old. 

The setting appears to be the yard of the family home, purchased by great-grandfather Fred Fineour in 1908. Minnie had been married for three years at this time; this was probably around the time she began collecting the recipes she wrote down in her notebook. Let's try an old Mohawk Valley recipe for corn pudding today:

This is an easy one, although if you serve it as a vegetable, you may want to omit the sugar. I have used the technique of baking a dish similar to this, usually a souffle, in a pan of water in the oven, which helps it solidify into a pudding-like (or souffle-like) consistency. I baked this for about 20 minutes in the pan of water at 350 F. degrees, and then an additional 10 minutes in the oven alone without the pan of water, which made it turn out a nice golden brown:

Corn Pudding Fresh From the Oven

This dish is not so different from a traditional corn porridge made by the Native American residents of the Mohawk Valley (for whom the valley was named) hundreds of years ago. Early Dutch settlers learned to make a similar corn mush, called sappaen, from their Mohawk neighbors. Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, who traveled west from Fort Orange (near what is now Albany, New York) in 1634 with two Dutch companions and five Mohawk guides, describes cooking sappaen over a large fire during their arduous winter journey. If their hunting excursions were successful, they supplemented their porridge with beaver, bear, or venison, or with dried salmon traded from the Mohawk villagers.

Over time this corn dish became an integral part of the Dutch settlers' diet. In 1888, Rufus Grider, a teacher and artist of the Mohawk Valley, described in his illustrated notebooks a "Mush and Milk" dish that is very similar to Minnie's recipe. It is also well documented by Dutch-American food historian Peter G. Rose in Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch, where the author describes a menu for a St. Nicholas Day supper at the American Hotel in Albany, on December 6, 1830 that included Sappaen en Melk - Cornmeal Mush and Milk.

We began this post with a photo of four generations, and will end it with another family photo of four generations, taken 45 years after the first, on the side porch of the family home.

August 1960
Kittie (now age 92) and Minnie (age 70) are in the top row. Two of Minnie's daughters, Charlotte and Doris, sit directly below them; and Minnie's son Bill (my Dad) sits in front with his son, also Bill. In the middle row at left is Bill's wife Grace (my Mom), daughter Betsy, and who is right in the middle? Why it's the Two Cookbook Cook herself! Who let her out of the kitchen?


  1. Hey! I haven't seen that last picture before. How come I'm not in it?

  2. Hello Ellen from Aiken, South Carolina. Mardi forwarded me the link to your blog. I so enjoyed it! I am looking forward to trying your recipe out. Corn pudding is something they prize here in the South and I'd love to see how a good old Northerners; recipe compares! Anyway, keep writing!
    Trisha Johnson (you knew me as Trisha Thornton in my Albany days!)

  3. Because Margriet dear, you were not born yet! The picture was taken in 1960. (I got it from Doris.)

  4. Hello Trish, great to hear from you. Please let us know how the recipe turns out, and how it compares to your Southern version.

  5. I'm sure Mardi knows full well why she's not in the picture. Question is, where's Glen? Taking the shot, maybe? Great stuff... I love it.

  6. Yes, Glen was most often the photographer. . . and Marg was probably still living in Pennsylvania at the time.