Write Your Family Cookbook
When Lis Wackman's mother, Anne Hilken, or "Grandy," died last month at 93, friends and family gathered at Hilken's home in Bethesda, Md., to reminisce over food and drinks. The No. 1 question on everyone's mind was, "Where the hell is the cheese ball?"-referring to the piquant combination of cheeses, raw onion, Worcestershire sauce, parsley, and walnuts that was Grandy's signature hors d'oeuvre for decades.
Happily, the recipe survives because Wackman's sister Mary Hilken had put it in The Hilken Family Cookbook-a spiral-bound booklet the size of a loaf of bread.
Warm memories. The best of these cookbooks "slide imperceptibly from family recipes into family history," says Pat Cornett of Beverly Hills, Mich., who has taught classes on making them. The books include vivid recollections about when the food was served, what it was like in the kitchen with Grandma, and family photos. Some people even scan in handwritten recipes and birth certificates. Patting the duct-tape-bound volume her mother gave her in 2002, Bonny Wolf, author of Talking With My Mouth Full, says its recipes give her "a place on the continuum. Food is a great connector."
The earliest American family cookbooks were beautifully crafted treasures of wealthy households, says Jan Longone, a culinary history curator at the University of Michigan. Longone traces the resurgence of interest in family collections to the nation's 1976 bicentennial celebration, "when America started looking back toward its roots."
Computers simplify the job, but making a family cookbook is not as easy as pie. Recipes don't always come with exact measurements, nor do all cooks use clocks. Even with the help of E-mail, collecting recipes can be labor intensive and emotional. That's why William Rice, founder of the FamilyCookbookProject.com, suggests using one family "editor" to set a deadline and do the cajoling. He recommends even inviting family members you don't generally see in the kitchen to participate. They could have one dish.
And you don't have to do research: You can start with what's on the stove today. Sean Shesgreen's book Cook! collects dishes he prepared starting in 1973, when he separated from his wife, moved into a farmhouse in Dekalb, Ill., and cooked for his daughter, Deirdre, and various girlfriends. "I don't remember some of the relationships I had, but I do remember the meals," he says. Deirdre, now grown with a family of her own, says: "When I use it, it reminds me of all the smells and sounds from when I was a kid. It's almost like a photo album that I can leaf through to recall certain people or evenings or flavors."
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.