Our Family Cookbook: A Record of Recipes and Recollections

A few years ago my mother-in-law was fretting over some cherished family recipes. She predicted that once she was gone, no one in the family would make those dishes anymore, and she was clearly sad over that prospect. A couple of the recipes were for dishes I’d never even tasted, in spite of all the years spent around this family. So an idea was born that turned out to be one of my favorite family projects.

When you write to a whole bunch of people who are related to each other and request their favorite food memories, you get some pretty funny stories—like taking fudge sandwiches to school, and Granny always, always burning the first pot of rice because she would get distracted in the garden. And you also get some fantastic tried-and-true dishes. I had so much fun reading through the stories and sorting through the old family photos that were sent along, the experience was worth the effort before I even started on the book.  

Once I had gathered all the recipes, quotes, photos, and stories, I set about making as many of the dishes as I could. I wanted the photographs for the book, but also—let’s be honest—I really wanted to taste the famous enchiladas (that every single person had mentioned) for myself! Those few weeks of basically cooking my husband’s entire childhood were pretty fun. I got the photographs I needed, but I also noticed several things:

  • Most people’s memories were only triggered by the food. The actual recollection was about the quality time spent in the kitchen or around the table with family. Grandchildren spoke of playing with bubbles in the sink while cleaning up after family meals; of making what seemed like a thousand batches of chocolate chip cookies; and about the cranking of the ice cream maker all summer long. 
  • There was a strong theme of love being demonstrated through the daily ritual of food preparation: the idea that this line of (mostly) women dedicated a significant amount of themselves to the very careful and loving feeding of their families. Every day. Every meal. For years and years.
  • I also recognized that in the menus from two and three generations back there was incredible simplicity in the food. They ate what they had. They paid attention to the seasons. Some of the old recipes literally called for the “canned tomatoes from the garden” and to “wait until the garden okra is ready,” and the chicken and beef came from their own land as well.

It also got me thinking about what my children and possible future grandchildren would submit to a similar project. (And then I started to panic about not having enough regular “favorites” in the rotation, not having holiday must-have recipes cemented into the lineup, and what their adult “comfort food” would be based on their childhood…but, I tend to overthink those kinds of things!) Mostly, though, it was a great addition to the family’s conversation about food. It has insured that many of us will keep on making the traditional recipes that were treasured by so many. Also, I learned that the enchiladas were as good as everyone had said they were!

Some tips in case you want to make one of your own:

  • I’ve used both Snapfish and Shutterfly to make books and can say that both are simple and fairly high quality. There really are a ton of options these days. I recommend you check to see if your photo cloud storage has a partner for printing products and start there.
  • Food is best photographed in natural light. So, if you want to cook the dishes for photos for the book, be sure to do them in the daytime as often as you can for the best photos. 
  • Don’t ask people for just recipes. Ask them for the stories and photos and memories that go along with the recipes. Those are the things that make this so much more than just a recipe collection.  
  • Have your kids help when possible. Remember, you are also making memories and cooking someone’s childhood!
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