General Tips for Recipe Projects

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Once you have a basic family recipe collection you may be inspired to be more creative and add more recipes.

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 1, “Setting a Course.”

General Recipe Project Tips

We’ve touched on what recipes you have now and what you might like to add to them. Let’s now turn to practical matters about starting a project. Since embarking on this book, I have loved hearing success stories of recipes saved and brought back into use. Still, I wish I had a nickel for every person who sighed and said something like “Well, I started to gather my grandmother’s recipes, but…” When there is great interest in developing an heirloom recipe collection, why would it remain untouched?

The pitfalls that manage to undermine a whole project are often surprisingly basic. People sometimes feel a disconnect between their hopes for a project and their confidence. (“I’m just not much of a writer.” “Organizing isn’t my strong suit.”) As I worked and researched, I began to keep track of the common pitfalls. In order to make sure this guide is truly useful, I would be remiss if I didn’t address them — especially when there are solutions.

Roadblocks are personal; what causes another person’s project to grind to a halt may not slow you down at all. I leave it up to you to decide which solutions, if any, are relevant.

Start Small. We’ve all done it. We’ve all started a project so complex that it couldn’t get off the ground. Right here at the beginning, it bears mentioning that it is better to create a humble family recipe collection than to stall out on an elaborate one. Once you have a basic collection, your satisfaction as well as the enthusiasm of your family may inspire you to add more recipes and turn up the creativity level.

Starting small is not just a way to keep yourself from stalling out. Particularly if you plan to create some sort of cookbook for family members who don’t cook often and who aren’t genealogy buffs, too much information can overwhelm. Think about offering enough recipes to interest various palates and suit various cooking needs. Add a few family facts, photos, or brief, compelling family stories to spark interest and you’re done. Then you can start working on the enlarged edition or volume number 2.

Pave the Way with Cooking Notes. Even if your family recipe project is years down the road, you can make it easier for yourself by taking a few extra minutes now. When you cook with recipes, add notes — where a recipe came from, the date you acquired it, and noteworthy occasions when it was used. Also note cooking tips, your adjustments, and serving suggestions. Not only will this practice help you remember the finer details of the recipe, but you’ve already left valuable information for the next generation.

Put Your Ideas in Writing. Going “from zero to sixty” on a project can drain momentum. What recipes and stories do you want to include? How would you like to organize the project? What will the finished product look like? Writing down ideas can clarify your thoughts and keep you on track, especially if the project takes some time to complete.

What form should your notes take? It could be anything from a word processing document on your computer to a note-taking app on your smart phone to paper slipped into the front of your recipe file. Personally, I create idea folders for various projects on my computer, but when it comes to capturing “pop-up” ideas while away from my desk, I am addicted to low-tech index cards. They are cheap and small enough to carry around easily. A handful fits in my purse, my bedside table, and the glove box of the car, allowing me to catch ideas anytime. They are also stiff, so I can write in the palm of my hand while waiting in line at the grocery store. Periodically, I look through the cards to see how various projects in my life are taking shape. Sitting on the floor, I process my ideas by shuffling and sorting, which gives me clues on how to proceed.

Gather Supplemental Materials as You Go. We’ve already discussed not putting off finding supplemental materials, but here are some additional tips. Working intensely on your project over a holiday visit with family sounds ideal, but it is usually hard to find everything you need within a short period. Working a little at a time may be a more effective mind-set and allows family members more time to respond. I use a calendar to keep track of requests and find that giving people a reasonable but concrete deadline for when I need items gets better results. With this type of system, there’s a lot less to track down when it comes time to put the final collection together.

What is the value of adding notes to a recipe?

Because my mother had the habit of recipe note-scribbling, our family’s traditional (and beloved) Chess Tarts taste just like hers even decades after her death. And I not only smile when I come across a recipe with a date from early in my parents’ marriage with “Bob likes!” written across the top, but I also know my father-in-law will probably like the recipe, because his preferences are similar to my father’s. If I hadn’t written in my own cookbooks, I would long since have forgotten that I made Silver White Cake to celebrate the birth of my oldest nephew, an isolated use of a recipe that can become a tradition if it is remembered and repeated.

More from Preserving Family Recipes:
Recipe Hide and Seek
Re-creating a Remembered Dish
Guide to Older Food Measurements
Collecting Family Recipes: A Group Effort

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