Collecting Family Recipes: A Group Effort

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Photo by Getty Images/KatarzynaBialsiewicz
Working with family members on your recipe collection lightens your workload and gives you more access to ideas, recipes, and stories.

Preserving Family Recipes: How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions(University of Georgia Press, 2015), by Valerie J. Frey provides useful tips for successfully gathering and preserving family recipes. The book offers advice on interviewing relatives, documenting family food traditions, and collecting oral histories to help readers savor their memories. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Adjusting Recipes.”

Getting Started on a Group Project

Poll Your Family. Making a list in advance is a helpful way to start collecting family recipes. Jot down what recipes and stories you hope to preserve and then find out what other family members think should be included. This helps generate enthusiasm, and many heads are better than one when it comes to remembering the past, especially if you want multiple viewpoints.

You want to consider favorite dishes, exemplary cooks, unusual foodways, and the most compelling family stories. Although you can approach a recipe collection any way that makes the most sense to you, consider seeking out a variety of dishes representing each branch of the family and reflecting important stages in your family’s history. Collecting widely is the best idea; even if some materials don’t work for this particular collection or cookbook, they will be preserved and can always be used for another volume. If you take this approach, let family know in advance so they will not be disappointed if everything they contribute does not appear in the first shared collection.

Collect from a Distance. Because of expense and time constraints, sometimes the only real option is to collect family materials from a distance. Phone calls and letters are certainly good methods, especially for letting people know about the project as it launches. E-mail may be better later in the project, as it allows you to more easily keep track of conversation threads. Computers have revolutionized genealogy in the last few decades, and social media sites are wonderful for outreach or maintaining family connections. I created Facebook groups for various clans of cousins. Sharing old photos or recipes this way can create instant enthusiasm for your project, and the discussions that follow can jog people’s memories and turn up valuable information.

Be as Mobile as Possible. For a richer experience that will build family memories and to have the best chance to collect what you need, travel as much as you are able. Many family members will be best motivated to help you in person, plus face-to-face contact is often most efficient and helps to avoid misunderstandings.

Family members may be willing to help but find the idea of writing down what they know too daunting or too time consuming. Therefore, on-site interviews and cooking visits are often the most effective way to gain rich information. If you let family members know well in advance that you are coming and what specific recipes or family materials you are looking for, you’ll have the best results.

Delegate. Spreading recipe collection or cookbook tasks across family members lightens your workload and gives you wider access not only to ideas but also to recipes, stories, family documents, and photographs. Those working with you develop “sweat equity” in the project and usually become more interested in the family history. If you know of family members who are particularly interested in cooking or genealogy, it makes sense to approach them first, because the project will be an easy sell. Also keep in mind that the senior members of the family may have more clout when it comes to making requests and will also draw from a larger pool of memories. When approaching family members with requests for help, try to find a task that plays to their strengths:

• The cousin with the annoyingly organized house may be just the person to help you methodically set up the project.

• The most dependable (and well-liked) members of the family are prime candidates for help collecting recipes and supplemental materials.

• Experienced cooks can test or proofread recipes as well as accompany you on cooking visits.

• Anyone with good listening skills can be an asset for a collecting visit, taking notes or providing a sounding board for your findings.

• The technically savvy can help with video recordings of cooking visits, scan family materials, or create a family recipe website to unite relatives near and far.

• Photography buffs may be willing to capture images for you — pictures of finished dishes, portraits of cooks, landscapes of old home places, still-life images inside family kitchens.

• Artistic family members (children or adults) can design covers or cookbook section dividers.

• Those who read a lot may be good at proofreading or editing.

Include Young and New Family Members. Asking for help from young or newby-marriage family members may draw them more deeply into the family and help them feel more vested in shared history. You may be surprised, too, at the benefits you receive in return. Many young ones are adept in technology and eager to show off their skills. Taking well-behaved older children with you on short visits to collect recipes and stories sometimes results in family members who enjoy kids being more willing to share. Those same family members may also do a better job giving background information and explaining details because they know they are addressing a less knowledgeable audience. When it comes to testing recipes, working with young or inexperienced cooks can help you detect confusing parts of a recipe.

Create a Comfortable Group Timeline. Allowing plenty of time for family members to contribute recipes or help is important, even though it will probably work best to set a concrete deadline. Many of the family cookbook authors I talked to found that everyday life gets in the way of the best of intentions, and reminders are often needed. Sometimes, too, what we ask for is larger than we imagine. Once when visiting Arkansas with my laptop computer and scanner in tow, I asked a cousin if I could make copies of her oldest family papers and photographs. She cheerfully led me to a back bedroom where she began pulling tidy box after tidy box from under the bed. She was willing to share, but didn’t remember where the items might be in those boxes. As an experienced archivist, I knew the hours of work I was looking at and realized it had to be a project for another visit. Similarly, Grandma’s recipe box may be buried deep in Dad’s closet, unseen for years — and perhaps surrounded by memories that he isn’t sure he’d like to deal with at present. Be ready to offer patience, understanding, and perseverance.

Be Prepared. As I began collecting family recipes, I quickly discovered that even casual visits with family can suddenly become opportunities to catch recipes and stories. I got in the habit of carrying blank note cards, a pencil, a digital camera with a video feature, and my digital audio recorder whenever I visit extended family. Luckily, in today’s modern world, these items are quite small and lightweight; I carry mine tucked in a padded camera case not much bigger than a sandwich. In fact, the tools you need might be as close as your smartphone or computer tablet. If so, charge it up fully before visits with family.

Be Realistic. The larger your project, the more likely it is that someone along the way will turn down your requests. The ups and downs of daily life will get in the way of your deadlines. There will be precious recipes that are lost to the ages. In addition, family cookbook author Glenda Major observed that people are afraid when writing down recipes and stories that they’ll forget and leave something out. “You will,” she said with a wry smile.

These are the sorts of pitfalls that hinder some family recipe enthusiasts. Yet the great news is that whatever you collect will be more than what you had before, and your efforts will promote your family’s history regardless of how well your finished cookbook matches what you envisioned. Don’t give up!

More from Preserving Family Recipes:
Recipe Hide and Seek
General Tips for Recipe Projects
Re-creating a Remembered Dish
Guide to Older Food Measurements

Excerpted fromPreserving Family Recipes, by Valerie J. Frey. Used with permission from University of Georgia Press, © 2015.