Family Cookbooks as Family History

DNA testing and genealogy research have gained such popularity in recent years. Never before has there been such technology to help people delve into the past. I haven't done such research but I'm sure I will. But for now, this is what I'm using to capture my family history - the German and Greek and British and Scotch-Irish: recipes.

Many of us have access to our forebears through the recipes they left behind. On scraps of paper and smudged recipe cards and in tattered cookbooks. A much-used cookbook has something of the sacredness of a family Bible - especially if the owners left scribbled notes.

We know that for millennia, food-making techniques were passed down verbally and by example - the oral tradition coupled with the routine work of cooking. All cultures have foods that are eaten in seasons based on food availability with some held as special for high days and events. People cooked together. Generations passed on the when and how of food by doing family and community life.

With written literacy, came written food records but it was fairly recently (in the last 150 years), that ingredients were actually measured in cups and spoons instead of handfuls and nobs.

If you have originals of family recipes, consider yourself very fortunate. It is a wealth - a bequest! Women left parts of themselves and a legacy of their lives' work in their cookbooks and recipe boxes. It may just be the end of such written records, as many people now rely on online recipe sources - bookmarking recipes to try or to try again - but these are hard for anyone else to discover. I do it myself - there's a whole wild world of recipes to explore! I try to print out online recipes after I've tried them and know I'm likely going to want to make them again. They get tucked into a folder or notebook so I can (hopefully!) come across them again.

I encourage us to see old family recipes as the treasures that they are. What should we do with them?

  • Scan them or photograph them to keep the original image. Then they can be reproduced and shared.

  • There are archival ways to preserve them - in special boxes or notebooks so they won't deteriorate.

  • Frame them.

  • Have them laser-carved into cutting boards or trays or printed on aprons or placemats.

  • Assemble them into a master cookbook for your children and your children's children. I recently undertook this project. In some cases, I added photos of my kids making or eating some of the recipes on the same page with the recipe. The result: a family recipe book as well as a family photo book.

We know that certain foods can stir up memories of times and people that seemed mundane at the time but become so precious with the passage of time. By saving recipes - we're preserving our family histories. Crumbs, scraps, aromas, flavors of people and times past.

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