08/03/2012 12:50 pm ET

Table Talk: Tracing Your Roots

This week's Family Dinner Table Talk, from HuffPost and The Family Dinner book:

Genealogists working for recently took a close look at President Obama’s family history, and their search had unexpected results. They found that the President may be related to "the first African enslaved for life in America" -- a man called John Punch -- on his mother’s side.

People who delve into their family history are often surprised by what they find. On a TV show devoted to exploring celebrities’ ancestry, actor Matthew Broderick learned that one of his grandfathers had won a Purple Heart during World War I, and his great-great-grandfather had fought in the Civil War; actress Brooke Shields found out she was connected to French royalty.

Although family history can be harder to trace with every passing decade -- the more time goes by, the more difficult it is to track down records created centuries ago -- the Internet has made it relatively easy to find information about your family's past. (Email and social media can also help you get in touch with relatives in foreign countries.) If you're just getting started, though, the best resources aren’t online records, library books or paper birth and death certificates: they’re the people all around you.

Your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (not to mention great-aunts, great-uncles and more) can tell you about what life was like when they were growing up, and even let you know where their own parents, grandparents and great-grandparents came from. With any luck, you’ll get a couple of classic stories and funny family anecdotes in addition to the hard facts.

Here are a few questions to get you started:
  • What country (or countries) does our family come from? Do our relatives still live there?
  • What can you tell me about your parents? Your grandparents? Where did they live, and what did they do for a living?
  • Where did you live when you were a kid? How was your life different from kids' lives today?

In her cookbook, The Family Dinner, Laurie David talks about the importance of families making a ritual of sitting down to dinner together, and how family dinners offer a great opportunity for meaningful discussions about the day's news. "Dinner," she says, "is as much about digestible conversation as it is about delicious food."

We couldn't agree more. So HuffPost has joined with Laurie and every Friday afternoon, just in time for dinner, our editors highlight one of the most compelling news stories of the week -- stories that will spark a lively discussion among the whole family.