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TCP Kitchen

Writing a Family History in the Kitchen

Family stories told by the recipes they love

Cookbooks can be more than just collections of recipes. The best of them tell a story—whether it’s about the author’s experiences, the cuisine being discussed, or the history and tradition behind a particular dish. The top books give a novice clear instructions about how to prepare food and what ingredients to buy and give an expert advice to hone his or her skills.

Then there are other, more personal cookbooks, preserving a family’s culinary heritage and memories of food and the people who prepared it.

Those kinds of books might not bring you riches, but they can enrich your life by preserving treasured memories and family history that otherwise might be lost.

Publishing your own cookbook takes some effort. You’ll have to collect and organize recipes, stories and photos, but there are plenty of resources out there to help you along. Several small-press publishers specialize in putting together professionally bound copies of cookbooks with your own recipes and photos.

But if you can’t afford such an undertaking, which can run you $30 or more per copy, a local copy center or office supply store can help you produce a simple book that you can put in a three-ring binder or staple together.

In my collection is one of these simpler books, called Recipes and Reflections, which contains recipes, memories, poems and photos honoring my Aunt Ruth on her 80th birthday.

These family collections make wonderful gifts and become treasured keepsakes.

Cooking Up a Book

The first step in starting such a book is gathering the recipes—and the stories that go along with them. Poll your relatives. Listen to their tales. Get them to write down their memories and share copies of old photos. Or, write down your own recollections for your descendants.

A computer and a photo scanner are invaluable tools for this process. You can easily gather photos and match them with recipes. If you can use desktop publishing software, you can put together the book yourself.

When you’re entering the recipes, remember that recipe and food styles change over the years. What was commonplace in one generation could be a rare commodity in another. Instead of “a handful of flour,” include a precise measurement (even if you have to make the recipe a couple of times to get it right). If a recipe has been in your family for years, consider updating it to fit the times.

Beyond the personal, groups that are trying to raise money have long turned to sales of self-published cookbooks. There are several companies out there that will help you with every aspect of the process.

Here is a recipe from Recipes and Reflections that was contributed by my mom, Mary. Her note on the recipe says: “Ruth gave me this recipe in lieu of the set of silver spoons promised to me as Mrs. Gilkey’s namesake.”

This gingerbread, especially when served warm and topped with whipped cream, is a treat much more treasured than silver.

Mrs. Gilkey’s Gingerbread

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons shortening
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup molasses
1 heaping cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup boiling water
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients and bake in square 8×8 or 9×9 pan for about 20 minutes. Insert toothpick in center of bread to check for doneness. Cut into 12 slices. Especially good with whipped cream.

Serving size: 1 slice. Per serving: 137 calories, 1.6 g protein, 2.6 g fat, 27 g carbohydrates, 116 mg sodium, 18 mg cholesterol

Great-Grandmother’s Orange Cake

Another old family recipe is just loose in my recipe box. It is for an orange cake my paternal grandmother prepared when the family lived in the Rio Grande Valley in the middle of an orange grove. Perhaps someday I will tackle the family recipe book and include this sweet, moist, sticky treat carrying a full, fresh orange flavor.

2 medium oranges
1/2 cup butter
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
2 eggs, well beaten
2 cups flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup ground raisins
1 teaspoon baking soda
Lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash one orange, cut into sections and remove and discard seeds. Put orange, peel and all, in food processor or blender and chop fine. Cream butter and 1 cup sugar, then blend in eggs. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour into greased and floured oblong pan and bake for about 45 minutes. Just before cake is done, juice remaining orange and half a lemon and place into saucepan. Add 3/4 cup sugar. Heat on medium and stir to dissolve but do not allow to boil. Pour over top of hot cake. Makes 10 servings.

Serving size: 1 slice. Per serving: 403 calories, 5.7 g protein, 10.2 g fat, 73 g carbohydrates, 164 mg sodium, 68 mg cholesterol