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Family History through Recipes

Updated on February 27, 2014

If you’re fascinated by family history, you’re probably searching through dusty documents and faded scrapbooks in the attic, but don’t forget to go through the old family recipe box. A family recipe oozes with memories that don’t show up on a birth certificate.


Heirloom recipes

Lucky is the one who finds a true heirloom recipe, handwritten and passed down through the centuries. Recipes, the way they are written and the ingredients used, bespeak of their times. Early instructions for honey-laded cakes were found on the inside of Egyptian pyramids while turn-of-the-century cooks relied on curious kitchen utensils to prepare recipes that were favored by early US presidents. Immigrants brought flavors and history of their homeland to meld with those of their new country, and the resulting recipes used both familiar and foreign ingredients.

Often, these recipes are not written down, but kept inside great grandmother’s head. Now is the time to collect them and record them for posterity’s sake! Be sure to inquire not only about the ingredients, measurements and instructions but also any memories associated with cooking this special recipe. Where did she get it? Who taught her to make it? Were there different ingredients or tools available? What does she remember about the family enjoying this recipe? Take her picture to keep with the recipe. Be sure to have her sign and date it.

And of course, great grandmother isn’t the only good source of family recipes. Send out inquiries to all of your relatives and encourage them to record treasured recipes from their elderly family members, too.

Start now to create your new family food legacy

Even those without a long line of ancestors can create recipe legacies for their posterity. When selecting a recipe to hand down, consider the following:

  • It should be a unanimous winner. Everyone gets a vote.
  • Think about a recipe that comes from your ethnic background.
  • Choose a dish that evokes happy memories.


Tips to preserving your family recipes

And when preserving your newfound tradition or “heirloom” recipe, remember these ideas to add more meaning and memories:

  • Try to avoid using the word processor. Even if the fonts are more legible than your scrawl, your descendents will enjoy seeing your handwriting.
  • Although your family may enjoy many of your recipes, select only the absolutely favorites for your special collection.
  • Accompany the recipe with a photograph of not only the dish itself but with the cook or family surrounding it.
  • It would be equally fascinating for people to see pics of step-by-step directions of your own hands rolling gnocchi, for example.

Example of clues to heritage in recipe

Here is an heirloom recipe from a woman whose parents immigrated to Hawaii from old Japan. There are many varieties of tsukemono, the salted and pickled vegetables served as accompaniments. Her altered version gives clues to her past and changing condition with its use of miso (soybean paste), Hawaiian salt, and beer, which first appeared in cans around 1935 and later arrived in the Hawaiian islands with the servicemen who were stationed there.


nappa cabbage, won bok (makina) or daikon (Japanese radish)

1 can beer

1/2 c. miso

1 c. sugar

1/4 c. Hawaiian salt

1/4 c. vinegar

Wash vegetables. If using daikon, peel it. Cut daikon in half and then cut each long piece in half down the center lengthwise.

Mix ingredients and pour over cabbage, won bok or daikon. If using won bok or nappa cabbage, smear the ingredients in between each of the layers of leaves. Place in a loosely lidded container. Keep cold in ice box. Allow to ferment for three days or more. Rinse well and slice into thin pieces before serving.

Recipes tell a story

My grandfather was proud of this amazing catch. He was happy to share this large fish with many family and friends. My grandma ended up drying most of their share by cutting into thin, long pieces, lightly salting them, and hanging them out in the hot Hawaiian sun in a homemade "dryer" which consisted of wooden dowels in a box made of netting.

Memorializing a Great Grandma's Recipe on Video

Use Video to Preserve Recipe

Using video is a great way to preserve family recipes. If you can videotape your family member cooking his/her own recipe, all the better. There will come a time when they'll pass from this earth, and it will be too late to catch them on video. I wish I had taped my grandmother in the kitchen while she was alive.

But even if it's took late for that, you can keep alive the family recipes as this man did on his Youtube video which shows him making a batch of his great grandma's Banana Chocolate chip cookies.

Do You Preserve Your Family Recipes?

Do you preserve your family recipes?

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      A very interesting and unique topic. I'm adopted, so I have nothing to go on regarding family history, but I've always wished I did. Now I do know quite a bit about my adopted family....but I like this angle. Well done!