From my Ancestor’s Kitchen

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for history. I think it really started in 1985 when John Jakes’ North and South was produced as a miniseries for ABC, and Patrick Swayze entered my young life as character Orry Maine. I was 11 years old and awestruck by the story, the characters, the costumes and the lifestyle of the time. That was the catalyst for a lifetime love of history that eventually turned into a love for heritage and genealogy … and John Jakes novels.

History vs Heritage

You may be wondering what the difference is between history and heritage. It’s actually pretty simple. History is what we read in our school books … it’s the facts and figures of times long ago (or maybe not so long ago). Heritage tells the story of a place; the extension of history. It’s all about the life we lived, the culture, the food, the myths and legends that attach themselves to our homes and lives. It’s what makes us … us.


It stands to reason that I turned into an amateur genealogist over the years. With the help of my grandfather’s niece, Betty Modglin, I’ve learned the ins and outs of tracing my family. We were both doing this long before online resources like Ancestry and Family Search (which are great to get you going), and Betty was doing this long before the Internet. I can hardly imagine that! Sherlock and Watson, we call ourselves. It’s fun. It’s addictive. It tells my story. 

Of course, family trees have many branches and some are easily traced while others, like my Great-Great Grandpa Winfield Scott Douglas’, are a bit more challenging. Regardless of which branch you take, my family has been in the Southern Illinois region for nearly two centuries.

German Heritage

The majority of my ancestry is German, arriving here at various times via the Mississippi River (Mueller and Schuster) or through Minnesota (Essler). My Grandpa Raines, however, hailed from the land of kilts and clans by way of his ancestors (Lindsey, Douglas, and Raines) … both the highlands and lowlands of Scotland; they settled near Pomona in 1815. It is this side of my heritage that I’ve always identified with most. 

It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to visit Germany in 2012, and took time to visit a few places where my German ancestors lived, that I totally fell in love with that piece of my heritage. I felt like I was home. I felt like I was among family … and probably was! Every restaurant reminded me of my Grandma Raines’ kitchen. Every glass of wine I drank reminded me of our own wine industry. It amazed me how similar everything was to home.

Southern Illinois has been influenced in large part by its German settlers … and Italian, Polish, French, and Celtic … and it is still visible if you look in the right places. That is heritage … what tells the story of a place … of Southern Illinois.

Genealogy as Education

For many, genealogy becomes much more than simply tracing a family tree or figuring out birth and death dates. It becomes about learning how our ancestors lived; learning their story. It’s about Jacob Mueller arriving in New Orleans in 1828 and traveling north along the Mississippi River with two friends to settle in St. Clair County. It’s about Veronica Essler leaving her Minnesota home at age 16 (in 1905) to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota only to meet her husband and move to Southern Illinois.

Stories aren’t the only pieces that get passed down; recipes often come along for the ride. While many families have a family bible that lists births and marriages, my family has a cookbook of sorts with handwriting from four generations of women (I’ll be number five someday). It’s an archive of family recipes that sheds light on lifestyles no longer lived. It’s a treasure.

Using Food to Learn About Family Heritage

Along with new found love for my German heritage came a strong desire to cook German food, and sauerkraut was first on my list of things to try. I don’t mean recipes that include sauerkraut, either. I mean cabbage heads turned into pungent beautiful fermented sauerkraut! My mom told me how easy it is and I had read how easy it is, but there’s something about the challenge of home-brew sauerkraut that intrigued me. I started small, had great success, and am hungry for more!

Now, those of you older and wiser than I have probably “been there and done that” and think it’s no big deal … and maybe you’re right. When moms are rushing from event to event with kids, parents are working long hours or more than one job, we have little time to cook … and many young women don’t cook from scratch. We’ve learned to rely on “30-Minute meals” that use pre-packaged food that can be fixed fast. As a general rule, we don’t preserve or can food or make sauerkraut from scratch in the basement.

Family and Food Roots

Getting back to my roots was my initial goal for this blog … and not just from a genealogical perspective. It’s important for us to put down that mobile device and reconnect with family and friends, to cook Sunday dinner like Grandma did, and to remember and retell the stories we’ve heard growing up so, in another century, our great-great grandchildren can continue telling the story of Southern Illinois … the story of us.




Family History Verna Essler Jones
My great grandmother, Veronica Essler, 1907, the year before she was married.
Winfield Scott and Margaret Douglas
Grandpa and Grandma Douglas, early 1900s, Murphysboro, IL
jake and anna Mueller wedding
My German 2nd great grandparents, Jake and Anna Mueller were 1st generation American.
Phoebe Raines and Leta Bradley
Phoebe Raines and Leta Bradley, 1919
Jim and Doris Rains 1977
Me with my grandparents - one German, one Scottish -in 1977 ... I was 3.