Written by Rachel Walman
What women’s history is waiting to be discovered in your family? On Sunday, March 5, culinary historian Lavada Nahon will be here in the galleries of the New-York Historical Society sharing artifacts related to the women in her family tree. In honor of Women’s History Month and the soon-to-be-opened Center for Women’s History, Ms. Nahon will help our visitors understand what it takes to unearth the stories of ordinary women whose lives have often been forgotten.
In anticipation of this event, we asked Ms. Nahon some questions about her life and the women who helped make her who she is today. Read about her history and prepare to share some of your own this Sunday! Learn more about her at LavadaNahon.com.
And if you’re really in the mood for women’s history, visit us on Saturday, March 4, as well to hear Linda Russell perform a musical history of American women.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What forces drove you towards becoming a culinary historian?
Lavada Nahon: I didn’t start out to become a culinary historian, but one thing led to another. Since I was very young, anything happening in the kitchen or with food drew me like a moth to a flame. Growing up, food-related social activities were a large part of my daily life: dinners, tea parties, receptions, picnics, bake sales—all of these things kept me cooking and looking at social rituals and customs. Learning about the social customs of other times was just a natural extension.
Food and cooking were also a major part of the life skills my mother taught me growing up. She used to say that she had three daughters—“One to cook, one to clean, and one to sew.” I’m the one who cooks. My parents were from East Texas farms, and even though we lived in Dallas, those farms areas were part of my growing up. When we would go visit family, I would spend time watching a couple of my aunts and uncles cook. My parents had simple desires around what they ate, but they also had very sophisticated palates. They’d grown up with farm fresh everything and that’s what we ate. My brother taught me my first dish, cinnamon toast, and since then there has been no turning back. I grew up in Texas, and by the time I was 10, I was cooking dinner every day. Nothing fancy, but all the time and almost always from scratch.
Working on both a modern stove and with live fire has also been with me since I was a girl from a mixture of the modern kitchen, the fireplace in our living room, the brick barbeque in our backyard, and camping as a Girl Scout. The more interest I showed, the more my mother had me do, until I was just doing it all.
Later, the various food-related businesses I’ve worked in and had, my endless taking of cooking classes and attending history lectures and museums, my work as an editor responsible for restaurant reviews, and the pleasure I get in teaching, sharing, and talking with people—all of it just sort of mixed together well. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
DCHM: Why did you decide to focus on the food history of the mid-Atlantic region?
LN: My love of history came from my love of reading. My initial pleasure in reading stories and novels made me curious about the times and places in which the stories were set. The library gave me not only the stories but all sorts of books to answer any questions I had about any particular people, time, or place—including cookbooks, which I would read like any other book, although I didn’t cook from them very often, a habit I still have.
I moved to Brooklyn when I was 24, just a few blocks from Grand Army Plaza. I began volunteering at both the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum as a way to meet people. Between the books and the period rooms, my interest in history, especially New York history, was well fed.
Being in New York was much different from being in Texas or the Midwest where I went to school. Not only do you have our country’s historical beginning on the Atlantic coast, you also have a major gateway into the country for people from so many different cultures. Not only did I now have access to cookbooks from all over the world, I also had access to all of the ingredients! Ethnic grocery stores are endlessly fascinating to me. Wandering through the period rooms at the Brooklyn Museum, all sorts of museums in the city, and such a variety of house museums in the area just opened up so much for me. When I moved to New York a lot was going on around the history of the enslaved in this region. So my trying to understand that took me into regional history, and over time, my interest in world history became narrower and narrower. The more I read, the more I explored, the more classes I took, the more I cooked, the more I read; it is a circle that is still my life.
DCHM: On March 5, you’ll be stationed in the galleries of our Museum sharing artifacts and stories about the women in your family tree. What aspects of their lives do you feel compelled to share?
LN: I feel compelled to share the multiple layers of their lives. No woman is just a single plane, a flat-as-glass transparent thing. The women in my life lived through a lot, and through it all, it was their need to feed their families—that is the constant thread for me. They were working women, on the farm and in the city—feminists before it became a thing—but they were also aware of their responsibility to nurture their families and to provide for them on a very basic level. Their awareness of the reality that feeding the body is also feeding the soul provided a foundation from which I and others could grow. Sometimes a piece of pie is just a piece of pie, but rarely.
DCHM: What kinds of women’s stories do you think need to be told more often?
LN: All women’s stories need to be told more often. The value of women has been so suppressed in so many ways for so long that the average woman often doesn’t feel she has anything of importance to share. History, social science, and related areas have been told from the man’s perspective—unless it is specifically a women’s history class, and even then, they focus of those few daredevils, those who have singularly stood out. Because of this, I feel that many women just don’t see how important it is to share their stories. They don’t grasp the lessons to be learned, the joy to be shared, the wisdom to be gleaned. So they don’t bother. We also have so few historical documents from women that it just adds fuel to the fire.
DCHM: What advice do you have for kids who want to discover the histories of women in their own families?
LN: Get curious, ask questions, and listen. Begin with simple questions: where did you grow up? What was your mother’s name? Your grandmother’s name? What was your best subject in school? What is your favorite color and why? Or if there is something [a woman in your life] owns that you’ve always been curious about, ask them about it. It might be a piece of jewelry they often wear, a painting on a wall, a book, or others—something that is obviously cherished by them.
DCHM: What artifact are you most excited to share with New-York Historical visitors on March 5?
LN: Probably the few samples of my mother’s handwriting I have left—recipe cards, writing in a cookbook, a story of her life she began. I am a writer, and my mother was a writer, and I realize how I so took that for granted—to the point I didn’t save the letters she sent me when I was in college and beyond. Those are the things I miss the most, her words.