Nothing tastes better than a recipe that has been handed down from one generation to the next. Cooked with care, using family recipes imbues the chef with pride in knowing that this is how grandma made it. However, many of us don’t take the time or care to preserve these recipes.
In fact, many of us don’t even bother to write down the recipes our family uses, assuming we will be able to teach them to the next generation much like they were taught to us – in the kitchen with hands on demonstration.
The sad fact is, there is a chance that these recipes won’t get passed on and could be lost to our children and grandchildren.
In our busy world, many people don’t cook or, when they do, it’s something quick and easy.
Old recipes that require hours preparing pastry dough or stirring a simmering pot just aren’t on the schedule for today’s families on the go.
I’ve heard many friends lament that they wish they’d written down a recipe their grandmother made because their own mothers were too busy or didn’t know how to make it themselves.
Then there are those of us who do have recipes written down by forward-thinking (or forgetful) relatives and ancestors.
These slips of paper and little cards are complete with the addition of years stains from kitchen spills as well as faded, scribbled handwriting, usually in cursive, which few people today can decipher.
Written recipes are heirlooms in themselves. Not only do they pass on the recipe, they also preserve a treasury notes about the food and the intimacy that is the handwriting of the person who made it.
The essence of the cook is in the paper for as long as it survives. If not cared for properly these unassuming treasures will yellow, get torn, or the ink will fade not to mention, if used, the papers could be damaged by spills or burns in the kitchen.
Preserving recipes can be a fun and enlightening experience that connects people with the past and with living family.
Recording and keeping recipes safe can be done with the right archival materials and practices that have been developed by by both expert historians and amateur genealogists.
Genealogy and Recipe History
Archiving papers is nothing knew to those of us interested in genealogy and family history.
Today’s genealogy is more than just making long lists of relatives and birth dates, collecting marriage and death certificates, and perusing the front and back of family bibles.
More and more people are taking a step further and collecting stories, photos and, yes, recipes down to be cared for as part of the family history.
Not only is recipe preservation important for relatives but also of interest to historians.
Notations of what our ancestors ate gives glimpses into the daily lives of people who lived before us to those who look into and beyond ingredient lists.
Difficult times such as economic depression can be read in recipes that substitute more expensive ingredients with cheaper items like replacing part or all of the meat in a recipe with beans.
Industrialization and modernization is featured in recipes that call for more and more canned goods or foods from various regions or countries now attainable through ease of transportation.
We see the effects of women entering the workforce and homes appliances changing as recipes became shorter to create and easier to make.
With all of this in mind, we can see how major historical events affected our own families all through their food.
Treating recipes like historical documents might feel strange or new to some of us. An easy way to view your recipe hunting in the context of historical preservation is to look at those recipes that family members clipped from newspapers and magazines.
Newspapers can give the location of where family members lived, a treasured note if your family has moved around a lot.
Magazine editions can be looked up in or bought from archives and tell a family member’s interests or what was going on in the world at the time that might have affected them.
Collecting the Recipes
The best way to ensure a recipe is passed on it to actually make it yourself. Learn the recipe from a family member or from a written card passed on to you.
Cook it for yourself and your family. By recreating these meals, you not only are accessing your own heritage but also showing others in your family, especially children, how important this meal and others like it are to remember.
If you have children, bring them into the kitchen to help you prepare the meal and tell them any stories you have of making or eating it from your own past.
Share this moment of intimacy and joy of family that is embedded in the food. Write down the recipe you use, notes on any changes you make or experience you have cooking it.
These additional notes will be invaluable for future generations who are seeking to connect with you and their past.
A great tip for those preserving family recipes is to contact what relatives you can and ask them about the recipes you are currently working on protecting and/or copying.
Ask about changes that have been made to the recipe, if any, and why they made those changes. These notes could give glimpses into the lives of the people that made the food.
Is an ingredient no longer available because of a move or immigration? Was an ingredient added because it is newly available?
It also shows the preferences and tastes of the people making and eating the food.
Family members with allergies might cause the cook to omit an offending ingredient while other family members, like an uncle who simply must add hot sauce to everything, might make additions and should also be noted.
Are there any particular memories they attribute to the recipe? For example, is the white cake recipe one made for a wedding or did the blackberry jam win a local award?
Put these special memories in with the recipes so that they too can be remembered.
Another fun way to collect these recipes, and try them out, without having to do the hard work of cooking them all yourself, is to have a family reunion potluck.
Ask family members to not only bring a dish but also bring a copy (or several copies) of the recipe they used.
If each family member brings more than one copy, each person can take them home with them for personal use as well.
Family reunions are also a great place to interview relatives on the aforementioned questions for your recipe notes.
Also, don’t forget to take pictures of the food – photos not only bring inspiration when added to a recipe collection but also help those making the dish in the future know if they got it right.
Keeping these scraps safe is as easy as sorting them into an archival binder or box. Protective plastic covers will keep the sheets from continuing to yellow and prevent the ink from fading or being rubbed off.
Label each recipe, either with a tag slipped inside with it or with a sticky label on the cover. Make sure all labels or additional notes are done on acid-free paper and using acid-free ink both of which can be purchased at craft or office supply stores or online.
Acids in regular paper can cause yellowing and the labels to break down over time. Also make sure any adhesive used in these binders is archival-grade for the same reason.
Boxes that keep these pages or even books in should also be of archival-grade material. Metal or wood boxes, while decorative, can damage the paper within by aging it or staining it with mold or rust.
Once protected, you can easily take your time to copy each recipe into whatever form you or your family prefers.
Like Grandma Did It
One option is to copy the recipes on cards and papers very similar to their original look, of course, making sure to use acid-free, archival paper so that your own notes and writing can be kept longer.
These can be stored by themselves for personal use so the originals are no longer used and at risk of damage. The copies can also be put in the binder or box with the originals.
The addition of the copies can clarify an ancestor’s handwriting or make a recipe that has deteriorated whole and usable once again.
Today, there are many recipe card templates that can be printed off at home. Some of these are free and can be found through searching for royalty-free images.
Other specialty images can be bought in packages through craft stores, stationary websites, or through small businesses that create scrapbooking templates.
What is fun about using these resources is that you can purchase templates that have pictures, colors and styles that are uniquely your own, adding a personal touch to the family archives.
Going digital is an easy method for those of us who grew up or were born into the .com era. The original recipe can be photographed or scanned then added to your own typed up version, additional notes made, and even images of the completed dish.
These recipes can be easily printed off and kept in a binder for personal use or files of recipes can be sent to relatives through email or social media.
The recipes can also be put up on a family’s genealogy website or blog for public consumption.
Recipes as decoration can give a vintage flare to the kitchen and dining room. Put the recipe card or page on acid-free parchment or backing and place in a decorative frame.
Choose wooden frames with an equally vintage look to them to add to the feel. Those of us who already have a vintage theme to our home can match up the recipe to the era of the decor.
This not only makes preservation fun for those of us with a love of craft and decorating, it can also inspire guests and family members to consider the value of their own antique recipes when they come to visit.
You can take this decoration tip a step further with recipes that your family makes specifically for the holidays.
The thanksgiving turkey recipe that has been passed down for years can be placed on a harvest themed backing and in a similarly decorative frame.
Add to this the recipes for an aunt’s cranberry sauce or a great-grandmother’s pumpkin pie and you have a lovely holiday motif to hang on the wall.
Family cookbooks are a favorite among genealogists with an interest in food, especially as holiday gifts to other family members.
Type of your family recipes and use one of the many self-publishing or print-on-demand sites.
Some of these site even have free or cheap software or apps that help format and put your book together.
Otherwise, copying or creating your cookbook on Google Docs or Word is easy enough and a PDF file can be sent or saved onto a thumb drive and taken to your local office supply and print shop.
If the family has shared a special occasion such as a wedding, birthday, or family reunion where the food was also memorable or noted, consider putting that all together in print.
Record the menu as the table of contents, type up the recipes, and add in family anecdotes about the event. This alone could make for a short and sweet recipe book and a great gift.
So, go down to the basement and grab that box of recipe cards or the recipe book grandma helped her church put together for a fundraiser.
Pull out all of the scraps of paper, various index cards, and recipes cut out of the newspaper that are floating around in a drawer someplace and don’t just preserve them, use them!
Your entire family (and generations to come) will appreciate it!