Making a Family CookBook

Having solid cooking skills will pay you back all of your life. Nothing seems to draw people closer than food. Good food opens doors; on any level, the skill will pay off many times over.

It is great to work out a quick dinner while in the company of friends. It is fun to see them enjoying what a few ingredients can bring together. But nothing prepares you for the emotions and love that can result when you pull out your great-grandma's bread or meatloaf recipes. And because it’s natural to want your children to experience those same feelings, you might consider compiling a family cookbook. A family cookbook passes down the nostalgia attached to your favorite childhood recipes, creating innumerable connections to the past. I hope these five tips enrich your life and serve to benefit future generations. 

Starting your family cookbook

Start this process now. Open a new document and begin compiling. You may think, “But I don't have recipes yet.” The actual recipes are not as important as you would think, at least not right away. First, determine how you will keep and build your book. Make it as professional or as simple as you prefer. Write it by hand in a spiral notebook, create a set of short videos, or make audio recordings (just imagine how your grandchildren would feel hearing your voice).

I recommend going the digital route, so you can easily share or invite family to add to your book from any place they have the internet. It is destined to become a priceless heirloom. 

Look to family memories for inspiration

Think of traditions in your family and those who play a part. Give each a page of their own, and ask them to jot down memories. You can change the format any way you wish; for now, just gathering ideas should get you rolling.

You may end up with stories of aunts that made funny jello salads for holidays or staple casseroles grandma used to take to neighbors celebrating a new baby. Try hard to describe your memories — how you felt, the smells you recall, what you noticed — as it will help set the scene for those far younger than yourself, whose lives and experiences are so different.

Consider who you may need to go to to find more information about the recipes you acquire. It could be the person in your memory or, if time has taken that person away, it may be with their son or daughter. Send that person an email to set up a time to call.

Make sure they know you want to try and find particular recipes and stories ahead of time so that they can rifle through dusty old boxes for old recipe cards long forgotten. They will want to take a photograph or scan/send it to you. It will often have handwritten notes like “no walnuts if Gus is coming,” which serve as priceless peeks into the lives of your loved ones. And if this person has funny sayings you still remember, use them as quotes. Ask for any other photos they may have of the recipe’s creator or home and include them.

Leave yourself lots of room within the recipe for people to make notes or adjustments. Times change, tastes change, and health concerns vary. This is important for the same reasons you find notes on a card fascinating. They can serve as a continued peek into the evolving family culture. People in the future will enjoy the notes you have made. When you finish a dish, you can close your eyes and draw upon your memories of that taste, smell, and texture. It will open your mind's eye and feed you both emotionally and physically.

Share your cookbook with others

This is a family cookbook, yes. But often there are people in your life who may not have family or who have shown interest in your family and book. Why not share it with them? They may note your work and add what they have from their lives. There is no harm in this. Unless you hold the famous Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe, you are not trying to keep secrets. 

Never call your family cookbook finished

There is no rush to finish this cookbook, even if you’ve made a print edition. Keep it an open project, especially in your mind and thinking. You will have family and friends in and out of your life forever. This book will keep you watching for events and memories that could come into your life fresh any day, as long as you have the right mindset. Be ready to add to it at all times.

By allowing your book to evolve, you can add notes and memories as they surface, such as “Grandpa Christensen could not cook anything edible, but he was a great fisherman. Here are photos of a fishing tip that needs to be remembered, along with grandma's catfish fry recipe.” These anecdotes bring other people to your book, so you have them in your memories when you flip through later. Try interviewing your grandparents or parents about people before your time. Old folks want to talk and love company. More importantly, they will want to share important facts and stories with you that are not part of your world yet. 

Turn your family cookbook over to whomever you wish

You may wish a younger family member would take over this project. Just start it and give it to them when you are ready. We tend to want to leave something of monetary value to our children or friends as we age. Nothing is wrong with that. A nice chunk of money is only as good for our loved ones as what they can do with that money. Money comes and leaves us just as quickly. But memories and stories of our ancestors? What were they like? How did they cook and find joy in life? This is so much more valuable. Together, if given and received as a living project, this will outlive the few dollars given in a short amount of time.

Human nature and family are such vast experiences. They are good and evil, happy and sad. I have spent way more time looking at some other family cookbooks than I should have. It's an exciting way to connect! Family is a loose term; anyone you have loved, valued, and made part of your life is family. Through them, we find ourselves well-rooted in each other.

Comments (1)

  • Lee on Apr 29, 2024

    What a great idea. The author is correct – it does not need to be complicated and it should evolve as time goes by. Don’t put it off for later, because later might be too late. Memories of meals shared with family or friends are very meaningful as one ages and folks are no longer with you.

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