Sara (Lenton) Cornelius of Cake Over Steak

By nature, I am an extremely shy person. Like, really shy. Which makes this whole internet thing even more mind-boggling to me. A while back, though, I decided that I wanted to start a new project here where I would seek out some cool people to talk about their family history and have them share a family recipe with me. (I’ll try to do this once a month, so stay tuned!) Luckily, one of the first women I reached out to was just an all-around lovely human, which makes things easy. I am pleased to present my first guest on the Hungry Genealogist, Sara (Lenton) Cornelius. A super-talented artist and creator of Cake Over Steak, this gal is doing some cool stuff.

sara

(Courtesy of Sara Cornelius)

Sara was kind enough to take a chance and agree to do an interview with me. I also did a little family history research for her in return. See Sara’s interview below, along with her family recipe, and check out the amazing family tree she created with the research I did!

Q.) Can you describe a bit more about yourself? Your day job, for example, is awesome. Can you tell me more about what you do and how you got involved with it?

I’m the graphic artist for a memorial company, so my main job is to create custom hand etchings on monuments and I also put together custom layouts for customers involving text and photos that we etch with our laser machine. The hand etchings are my favorite part; I do a lot of scenes (deer and cabins or beach scenes, etc.) and I use a dremel tool to scratch the polish off of black granite, revealing the natural gray granite color underneath. So I’m essentially creating an image in reverse, etching away the parts that are white instead of the black parts like you would with a pencil or pen drawing. It’s fulfilling for me on a creative level, but the actual etching process is kind of mindless for me, so I get to zone out and listen to podcasts. It’s the best of both worlds.

Q.) Let’s talk more about your blog. Where did the idea come from? Is this something you were doing before you actually set up a blog? Or is it something that you had the idea and said, “I’m going to put that out there?”

The idea for my blog came to me the summer after college. I was considering starting a food blog, but didn’t feel extremely confident in my ability to photograph the food or come up with original recipes, and then I had the idea to illustrate the food. Since I’m an artist it seemed like an obvious way to make the blog more “me.” I let the idea percolate in my head for about 2.5 years before I actually started it, and for most of that time I was still trying to come up with the name for it. Even though I was illustrating the food I still wanted the blog to have nice photos, which is part of what held me back for so long. My husband is a photographer, so I finally mustered up the courage to start it when he agreed to take the photos for me. Along the way I had also become more confident in my ability to create my own recipes. Now that my blog is a little over a year old I’m transitioning into being my own photographer (with guidance from my husband, of course), and I’m starting to love that part of the process as well.

Q.) I know that you have an Etsy page where you sell your artwork. What is your intention with the blog? Would you like to do a book someday?

My intention for the blog includes a whole list of things: I wanted a space for sharing my love of food while also giving myself an outlet to create personal artwork outside of my day job. I wanted to interact with the food blogging community, which I think encompasses one of the best groups of people on the internet. I was also excited to have a place to record my life, in a way. Eventually I’d love to make a living from my blog, whether that’s through advertising and sponsored posts, or freelance illustration work and selling prints through my Etsy and Society6 shops. But most importantly, I want to make sure I’m always having fun with it. I think that doing a cookbook would be an amazing project, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. I might create an “art book” of my illustrations and recipes from the blog someday, if that seems like something people would be interested in.

Q.) That’s great! I think an art book is an awesome idea! And, speaking of your art, that’s a good transition to your family. I know that you said there were artists in your family. Is it an accident that you became an artist too?

I suppose you could say it was an accident and that it wasn’t an accident. I didn’t have any close relatives that were professional artists to act as role models for me when I was a child, but I knew I wanted to go to art school by the time I was in tenth grade, and ever since elementary school I was always considered to be “artsy” by my peers and teachers. Looking at my family now, though, it comes as no surprise. My father is a writer but can also draw very well for someone who doesn’t do that on a regular basis. His father became a serious watercolorist in retirement, and his paintings are hanging all over my parents’ house. I recently discovered that the cousin of my paternal grandfather was a professional artist, dabbling in music, painting and puppetry. I learned to play piano on the piano that belonged to my great-grandfather, and my father sings and plays drums in a band in his free time. My uncle on my mother’s side has recently turned his photography hobby into his full-time job. Both of my grandfathers enjoyed playing with photography, so that has definitely been passed down. My eldest brother is also a professional photographer, and while my other brother does not create art professionally, he is a talented photographer and painter as well. (And now I’m married to a photographer.) My only cousin on my mother’s side is currently working on starting his career as a graphic designer. So as you can see, the creative arts run rampant within my family on both sides.

Q.) It sounds like it definitely runs in the family! What did you think when I first approached you about being a part of this little project of mine? I wonder especially about what you knew about genealogy at your day job.

When you first approached me about this I thought it was a unique request and I was really excited about it. In particular, I was excited to learn more about my family. I live in an area where families have grown here for generations and they have large, close-knit families. By comparison, my family is extremely small and half of it is in Georgia, sixteen hours away. There were no other Lentons and at times I felt like my small family of Lentons (and Ecklunds) were the only ones to exist in the country. We also didn’t know much about our heritage (which, it turns out is a real mumbo-jumbo of western Europe, more or less what we had expected), so learning more about that seemed like it might give me a better sense of my place in this world.

At my day job I don’t often interact with customers, but it can be interesting to learn how they feel about their relatives through what they choose to put on someone’s headstone. Sometimes people want to put an image on a headstone that represents their relative’s job, which can be as mundane as an old-fashioned adding machine or something like a policeman’s badge. Other times they focus on things that remind them of the person or something they knew the person loved, like their favorite flower or their favorite spot on the beach. That’s what I love about my job–even though I might think they’re putting something ridiculous on a gravestone, I know that it means a lot to someone else, which makes it important, no matter what. It gives my day-to-day job a lot of purpose and meaning.

Q.) Were you surprised by any of the things I found? I know that your parents were involved a little. Did you find it interesting and what would you like to know more about? What did you already know? What are you going to do with this information?

I was surprised that it was mostly the great-great-grandparents that came over from other countries, and that most of my great-grandparents were born in Pennsylvania. My parents were really enjoying the process of learning about this, too, and some of what you found helped to jog their memories about pieces they had forgotten. I wish I could know more about my relatives’ day-to-day lives: Where did they work? How did they spend their time? What were their relationships like with their kids? But I’m glad to finally have the information you found, and it’s something I can eventually pass onto my own children so they can know a little bit more about their family history.

Q.) I’m always interested to know if a person’s family history managed to make it to the family dinner table. Do you know if anyone in your family was a good cook? Have any recipes been passed down?

I wouldn’t say that cooking is a strong part of my family history. The family dinner has always been important within my family, but I’m not sure that anyone before me was necessarily passionate about cooking. It was more just something you did because you had to and that was how you put food on the table for your family. My grandparents weren’t really well enough to cook a whole lot when I was younger and they were around, but my mom often makes things that both of my grandmothers used to make all the time. When I asked my mom what she thought of as being a quintessential recipe in our family, she thought of her mom’s coleslaw recipe. As I mentioned, the family dinner has always been important, and both of my parents’ families had a tradition of eating a large dinner on Sundays. My mom’s mom would make a roast every Sunday and she would also make this coleslaw, shredding the cabbage by hand.

Sara was nice enough to share her family recipe with us and suggested I try it on some pulled pork sandwiches. If you would like to try Sara’s grandmother’s coleslaw, you can find the recipe below. I tried it and I was not disappointed.

Coleslaw

Grandma Ecklund’s Coleslaw

Ingredients

  • 1 small head of cabbage or 1/2 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
  • 1/2 tsp coarse kosher salt

Directions

  • 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.

Thanks so much for agreeing to tell me about your work, your family, and your blog, Sara! And I’m so glad you were able to turn my research into a beautiful piece of art! (Don’t forget to check it out, guys!)

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