PERRYVILLE — Whether you’re chowing down on a bowl of New England clam chowder or sopping up some New Orleans gumbo with a piece of cornbread, culture and history are brewed and baked into the foods people hold dear, according to author Ed Okonowicz.
Okonowicz will present a talk titled “Food Lore: Muskrat, Scrapple and More” at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the Rogers Tavern Museum.
“We take a look at food generally and how it’s associated with holidays, ceremonies, everyday living, working, playing and do it in a national scope, like what foods are associated with certain towns or areas around the country. Then we bring it down to a local level and talk about food associated with the states on the Delmarva Peninsula,” he said.
When tasting various dishes, Okonowicz said people are often reminded of the memories and experiences associated with those foods.
“Food has the ability to generate memories, just like hearing an old song on the radio or opening up a picture album,” he said. “You say ‘I know where I was when this picture was taken,’ or ‘I know where I was when I was driving and I heard this song.’ Sometimes you go to a shop or a restaurant for the first time and you check items on the menu and you say, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t had that thing for 30 or 40 years.’”
From wedding cake and champagne toasts, to buttery popcorn at the movies, to hotdog eating competitions, food is at the center of many ceremonies and events, Okonowicz said.
There are even food festivals dedicated to exploring different cuisines, he added.
But Okonowicz said food also enters our lives in more subtle ways.
Growing up in Browntown, a Polish neighborhood in Wilmington, Del., Okonowicz remembers many of the foods that were staples in his childhood.
“One of my grandfathers had a small neighborhood bakery, so foods related to eastern Europe were important and a part of daily life when I was growing up … In the neighborhood I grew up, it was kielbasa, kishka, pierogies, rye bread, pastries, nalesnikis, all kinds of things like that. Czernina, which is a delicacy called duck blood soup, doesn’t grow on you if you don’t like duck blood soup,” he said.
Jennifer Pitts, director of Rogers Tavern Museum, said the food transports people back to when they were younger.
“Food has long been tied to regional identities and is a reflection of not only a region but also of people and personal histories too,” she said. “Hopefully, we all have a special family recipe whether it’s chicken pot pie or lasagna or a soup of some kind that when we take that first bite, it’s like going back to our childhood.”
Family recipes get passed down from generation to generation with people paying homage to their relatives and the cultures they represent, Okonowicz said.
“Parents, grandparents would prepare a food a certain way and pass it down to the next generation, even using some utensils that they saved from a dead relative — a bowl, a mixer, something like that they use as a personal family annual custom,” he said.
Okonowicz said it can be surprising how passionate people get about the foods that are important to them and their families.
“One time I was doing a talk and two ladies started talking about side dishes during Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “They actually started arguing about what was the best side dish to have with the Thanksgiving turkey to the point where they were almost ready to shout at each other. It was sort of entertaining to watch because people have a strong sense of association.”
While dishes can hold a personal importance to individuals, foods can also represent a broader cultural significance for various ethnic groups and identities, according to Okonowicz.
“If I say ‘Maine,’ you think of lobster. If I say soft pretzels or subs or steaks, you think of Philadelphia,” he said.
In his talk, Okonowicz will highlight foods in the national scope as well as on a more regional level.
“The mixture of the region’s geography, especially with the Chesapeake Bay, plays a major role in the foods associated with the state,” he said.
For Maryland, those foods include items like hard shell and soft shell crabs with Old Bay, Okonowicz said.
Okonowicz has written more than two dozen books about Delmarva and Maryland folklore, oral history, regional culture, crime and ghost stories. He also taught a course on folklore at the University of Delaware for about 10 years.
At first, he said many of his students didn’t know exactly what folklore was.
“When I went into classroom for the first day and talked to the students about what we were going to do, I found out most of them thought it was going to be about superstitions, legends and ghost stories,” he said. “I had to explain to them that folklore is associated with clothing, family history and heritage, ceremonies, costumes, events, and also food.”
Okonowicz has 20 different programs, but he said his talk on food has become one of his most popular, next to ones on tombstones and movie theaters.
Okonowicz said that while he will be presenting humorous stories and pictures related to food, the event is meant to be interactive with audience members.
“If somebody has an interest and a good story to share, we’re not going to shut it down, that’s for sure,” he said.
He added that even if attendees are not from the area, they will likely be able to relate to some of the foods discussed.
“Some, who have not lived in this area, will be surprised about some of the foods but then they’ll start to compare it with the areas where they lived,” he said.
Pitts said if you’re a fan of food and want to be entertained, Okonowicz’s talk is the right fit for you.
“If you love food and you’ve got a good sense of humor, come out,” she said.
Tickets are $12 per person and can be purchased on Eventbrite through a link on the Rogers Tavern Museum’s Facebook page.