Family recipes that have been passed down throughout the generations are about much more than just food—they’re about who created the recipes and the culture they can be traced to. They hold the stories of our families and what it took to sustain and nourish them on a daily basis, during hardship, and over time. In this sense, cooking is as much an act of resilience as it is a resistance to time, to hardship.
The current generation is spending a lot of time in the kitchen. And they’re not only cooking and baking, but also reconnecting to their roots and the strength that has guided their families throughout the centuries.
With so much time being spent in the kitchen and with family recipes on our minds, now is an especially good time to preserve your family recipes and the stories that go with them. Here are seven easy steps for finding, saving and celebrating your family’s “resilience recipes.”
1. Write Down Recipes
Because cooking is a physical act, many recipes are done by memory and go unwritten. This presents an obvious challenge to family historians wanting to preserve memories across the generations.
“So many of our family recipes are stored in the heads of our family members. Write the recipe down so it can be re-created by others,” says Gena Philibert-Ortega, an author, researcher and instructor who specializes in genealogy and social and women’s history. Her book, From the Family Kitchen (Family Tree Books), discusses how to gather and record family recipes.
If you don’t know all the steps or measurements, ask someone else in your family who does. Philibert-Ortega suggests inviting the person to make the recipe (virtually or—post-pandemic—in person). Even if they’re creating the dish by rote, take careful notes about what they’re doing and when. As they add an ingredient, have them stop so you or they can measure it. Take photos as your relative makes the dish so the process can be accurately recorded.
Even if you already have a recipe in writing, consider re-copying the recipe onto a new card. You can’t replicate the sentimental value of a recipe in your grandmother’s handwriting, but you can re-print a recipe in your own hand (especially if it makes the recipe more legible).
2. Scan Your Recipes
Family recipes preserved on cards, clippings and other physical media should be scanned for safekeeping (and for sharing with other family members). Though not foolproof, digital storage will help safeguard treasured family recipes from the dangers of fading paper, inadvertent trashing, kitchen fires and even the errant splash of vinegar or other ingredients.
Once scanned, images of the recipes can be backed up to multiple devices, saved to cloud storage, or posted online to social media platforms. Some programs will even index written text in images, meaning your recipes could become keyword-searchable.
Place original copies of recipes in archival recipe binders, recipe card sheet protectors, acid-free print paper, polyethylene bags and/or archival binders for protection. Archiving supply stores such as Gaylord carry lots of archival-safe options.
3. Focus on Stories
To get a fuller, richer look at the context of the recipe within the family, you should also preserve the stories behind it. That personal connection won’t automatically be conveyed in directions and lists of ingredients.
“Family members aren’t going to know their family history if you don’t tell them,” says Philibert-Ortega. “Family food history gets easily lost because descendants don’t know how that dish fits in their family history. Take time to explain why a certain recipe has been made and enjoyed over the generations.”
A great way to capture these stories is to interview family members about their food memories. These interviews can be quick and completed via email, text, video conferencing, or (once it’s safe) in person. Ask questions that identify the dishes and those who ate them: which family members did and didn’t like a dish, what foods were comfort dishes, what were only for special occasions, and so on.
See if your family members know the historical and cultural context behind the recipes. Were they traditional dishes? Dishes that were created to be filling and feed the largest number of people for the least amount of money? Who did the cooking, and what did they talk about while cooking?
4. Study Food History
Recipes are influenced by all kinds of factors—including history—so include the cultural origins or social context. You don’t need to become a culinary historian, but knowing why certain ingredients or dishes were used can add lots of flavor, particularly if a recipe doesn’t make sense to you.
Some recipes, for example, were born out of food scarcity or poverty. “During World War II, because of food rationing, various substitutes were made to make up for foods that were not as available,” says Philibert-Ortega. “A recipe you inherit from Grandma may reflect this, so searching for a cookbook from the era can help.”
Philibert-Ortega suggests searching food history books through WorldCat and digitized books on Google Books and the Internet Archive. Some great books study the history or prevalence of just one ingredient, such as butter.
Digitized newspapers from the 19th century onward were full of recipes. According to Philibert-Ortega, these can help you understand what wider society was eating, what was available in that city, and what food cost then.
Community or fundraising cookbooks from the time period when and where your family lived are another way to learn more about recipes. They also often list the names of the women who contributed, providing an avenue for your research. This is especially true if you have ancestors who settled in an area with other immigrants from their home country, or were members of an ethnic heritage society.
5. Note Any Changes—and Add New Recipes
As tastes have changed throughout the years, it’s possible that your family recipes did, too. Tweaks may have been made to substitute for ingredients that became more (or less) available, or to account for advancements in cooking technology. Recipes may have also been adjusted to make them healthier or in response to a family member’s dietary restrictions. If you pick up on a change throughout the decades—or if you’re the one making the change yourself!—document that along with the recipe, too.
In addition, don’t be afraid to add new recipes to your family’s archive—we are just as much a part of our family history as the people who came before us. Don’t forget to document your generation’s favorite dishes, as well as those of younger generations as they grow older.
6. Create a Cookbook
Once you have everything you want documented, you may want to publish your recipes in some format to save and share with family members and future generations. What form that takes—be it a published scrapbook or cookbook or a simple Facebook page—is up to you.
For those so inclined, producing a family cookbook doesn’t have to be difficult. Philibert-Ortega has seen everything from recipes photocopied and stapled together to professionally bound books that include images and family stories.
She recommends looking at examples to determine what you want, then setting aside the time and money. Do-it-yourself options include photo books through services like Walmart or Walgreens. If you want something more formal, cookbook software or publishers like Morris Press will give your finished project a professional look. Online courses that cover family cookbook basics are also a good option. (In fact, Philibert-Ortega teaches such a course for Family Tree University.)
7. Be Inspired
In hard times, we seek comfort and familiarity, and family. Food and cooking—often tied up in family traditions and memories—are two things we can all relate to.
And in the difficult year that was 2020, a lot of people found comfort in cooking. “Food and family history makes us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves,” says Philibert-Ortega. In particular, our family recipes remind us that generations of family members ate the same food at the dinner table that we are. And, just like them, we’re able to overcome hardships. We share stories of three individuals who are doing just that in the sidebars throughout this article.
“My grandmother modeled how to be strong in tough times—times that she helped place in a global and historical context,” says Caroline Shin, whose grandmother escaped from North Korea. “Yes, I’m living through a pandemic, but I’m not escaping on foot with a crying baby amidst gunshots and attack dogs in the dark of a forest at night.
“Her wisdom went far beyond the recipes,” Shin says. “It taught me how to be resilient and show love through food.”
And amidst being laid off from her full-time job and the isolation of being stuck at home with her 1-year-old, Dee Kim has been picturing her mom making dumplings for 20 to 50 people, or later on making that same recipe alone in a trailer with Kim’s brother. “If my mom can do that, then I can feed my family of three,” she says. “Dozens of generations of women in my ancestral family have made mandu—that comforts me and brings connection.”
Still others find, in food, a memory of better times. Ava Homa, who is exiled from her home in Iran and lives in the United States, bakes apple cake to remind her of Karen, a cherished friend from her new life.
“I have been completely isolated during this pandemic—more than my writing life typically imposes on me,” Homa says. “But baking Karen’s recipe reminds me it’s been possible to connect with people from different races and age groups through the power of storytelling.
“If Karen could open her home and her heart to a stateless exiled migrant, I can open my heart to more and more people during and after the pandemic,” she says.
A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Family Tree Magazine.