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Creating A Family Recipe Book

Updated on February 26, 2010

 Like many people, I'd rebelled against the food of my youth. My path to maturity as a cook has been tied to a combination of the ethnically exotic and/or healthy. I love grilled (almost charred) chicken with mango salsa; I've dabbled in coconut milk and lemon grass; I stir-fry bok choy; I've even tried making my own corn tortillas from blue masa harina.

But suddenly, this culinary life I'd adopted seemed rather phony and flimsy. Where were my roots? I called my ex's 86-year-old grandmother in her nursing home to talk about pot roast. Her memory is still sharp, and she enthusiastically gave me step-by-step instructions over the phone. In fact, she enjoyed talking about it so much that she also gave me her recipe for red cabbage and apples (a truly wonderful thing), and one of my great favorites: Hungarian goulash in a sauce flavored with broken pieces of ginger snaps (better than it sounds).

Ours is not illustrious gourmet history. But this is the food that nurtured us as first-, second- and third-generation Americans. In its ordinariness is our own ordinary (and sometimes not-so-ordinary) story, one that I may someday sit down and write.

Preserving Family History Through Food

If you want to preserve your family's past, consider compiling a family recipe book. From mundane daily meals to great ritual celebrations, food and family histories are inextricably linked. Old recipes reveal ethnic and religious identity, tales of immigration, and regional culture, not to forget the personal quirks, loves and character of the individual cook.

Go and record the gems of your family before they are forgotten. With desktop publishing and word processing programs, you can get lovely results from your home computer. This said, family recipe books can be whatever you want them to be, from the lavishly designed and professionally printed to the homespun, handwritten and photocopied booklets of a few pages.

A number of companies offer custom printing services tailored to charitable fundraising and family cookbooks. These may be a good option for large families with many contributing cooks. You can get a laminated cover and pages bound with a spiral ring for easy flipping on the kitchen counter. Though they are less personal products, the benefit is that you submit the recipes and get back a finished product rather easily. Note, however, that these are usually big books with at least 150 recipes and there is often a minimum order of 100 copies. Also, they may run you about $5 per copy or more if you add lots of photos and personal notes.

If you want a more personal touch, a much better route is to make your own book at your local printer or copy shop. Look for one that offers POD or Print On Demand technology. You can give your local printer pages you have made using a scanner and QuarkXpress (or similar) desktop publishing program. If these tools aren't available to you, consider a photocopied booklet.

Ingredients for a Family Recipe Book

  • Contact key family members for their old recipe cards. If necessary, take down recipes orally, many favorites are never written down.
  • Ask the best writer in the clan to write a personal introduction.
  • Include old family pictures and artwork.
  • Weave in a few family stories, notable quotations or favorite culinary tips amid the recipes.
  • Sprinkle in some casual family genealogy, such as when and where grandparents were born, and their occupations.

Give the final book as a holiday gift or memento from a family reunion. Your family will love you for it!


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