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Preserving Family Recipes

Family recipe card for Preserving Family Recipes

If you’ve decided to record some of your family’s treasured recipes, you’ve taken upon yourself a valuable, if laborious task. I found the difficulty of preserving family recipes out myself during a phone call to my Dad a few years ago when I was trying to duplicate his famous inari sushi rolls for a party. Our conversation went like this:

DAD: To the rice, add some of those marinated things.
ME: What are they called?
DAD: I don’t know. I think the can is orange.
ME: How much do I add?
DAD: Just some. But not too much.

If you’re trying to get Grandma’s special recipe peach slab pie or Uncle’s barbeque sauce captured for generations to come, there are ways to make the task a bit easier and more personal. With this in mind, here are my six tips for collecting and preserving family recipes.

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Ask specific questions and be prepared for non-answers  

A lot of the best home cooks learned by doing. They ignore recipes in favor of simply cooking by feel, using a little of this and a pinch of that, relying upon their senses to tell them when the combinations of ingredients is right.

Grandma may not have any idea exactly how much sugar goes in her pie, so join her next time she makes it and have a kitchen scale or some measuring cups nearby. Hallmark Content Strategist Trish Berrong discovered that most of her dad’s mom’s southern vegetables got their flavor from “a little bit of salt, a little bit of water, and half a stick of margarine.”

Video is your friend  

The best part of a family recipe is seeing the cook create the masterpiece. Consider filming the creation of each dish as a complement to the written instructions.

Add a little story or color commentary  

Your recipe will benefit from some details about the cook and the way this dish was always served, or why it’s a family favorite. Who was the first creator? What was that person like? Who has cooked this recipe since then? Has anyone made any variations? Hallmark Writer Tommy Donoho tells a great story about his family’s prized recipe:

“My Great Grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe will forever remain a closely-held family secret that many have tried to get their hands on and quite possibly died in their attempts. I can tell you, however, that her recipe card specifies [amount withheld for secrecy] of Crisco shortening—THE ONE WITH THE CHERRY PIE ON IT. You might be asking yourself ‘What’s different about this particular can of shortening that makes it integral to her recipe?’ It was simply because she thought it looked better in her pantry than the one with fried chicken on it. Go figure.”

Family chocolate chip cookies in tin for Preserving Family Recipes

Add some serving details  

If possible, add some details about how and when this family recipe makes an appearance on the family table. One of my favorite recipes from Dad reads, “Eat in front of the TV but don’t tell Mom.”

Try to preserve the cook’s handwriting if possible  

Whether it’s scanned, copied or laminated, there’s something about seeing a loved one’s handwriting that makes cooking family recipes even more of a bonding experience.

Editorial Director Stephanie Young’s grandmother’s recipe box contains large numbers of important recipes written on the backs of receipts and old envelopes—as well as even more random bits of scrap paper Stephanie’s great-grandmother filled with notes. “They never wasted a thing,” she says.

Family recipe in box - Preserving Family Recipes

Be prepared to do some work  

Uncovering a family recipe can take some work. If it’s not written down, you’ll have to interview someone who knows how to make it. If it is written down, but incomplete or illegible, you’ll need to find someone familiar enough with the recipe or the writer to translate. You may have to swear not to share it outside the family, or assume the responsibility of making it for special occasions.

“My grandmother Wese tried dozens of shortbread recipes until she found one that tasted exactly like the one some friends from Scotland brought her,” Trish says. “I’m not allowed to share the recipe—but I’m very popular when I share the shortbread.”