Just like MomThe sorriest stories in the cooking world go like this:
used to make
A Mother's Day gathering is
the perfect time to launch
a family cookbook project
Setting schedule and tapping relatives can help task
By Betty Shimabukuro
"My mom (or dad, grandma, aunty, etc.) made the world's best (fill in food item here), but I never learned to make it. And now it's too late."
Not only is a recipe lost, but also a bit of the essence of the family.
"It's not just the recipes," says Kathy Steligo, a California writer and modern-day expert in the compiling of family cookbooks. "It's the recipes and the memories and the stories connected to the food."
Don't let your family drop the connection, is her message.
Steligo is the author of "Meals and Memories: How to Create Keepsake Cookbooks" (Carlo Press 1999), a step-by-step guide to assembling a family cookbook -- good reading material in the days before and after Mother's Day.
Steligo suggests an occasion like this, when extended families normally congregate, as prime time to launch a recipe-collecting project. Just keep in mind, she says, that recipes are only the beginning. Reconstructing a special dish leads to all manner of memories involving the gathering of the food, the cooking itself, the eating afterward.
It wasn't just Mom's way of cooking catfish, it was the annual fishing excursion beforehand; it wasn't just Grandma's laulau, it was gathering in the kitchen to assemble the bundles, or the dinner afterward where everyone fought over the biggest one.
A keepsake cookbook, Steligo says, contains photographs and stories that put food in context.
It can take many forms, from a computer-generated book copied 20 times and given to every relative, to a single heirloom edition filled with photographs and presented to Mom at Christmas (start now and maybe you'll finish in time).
Make a frilly one all in white as a wedding gift, containing favorite recipes of the bride and groom; make a simple, sturdy one as a survival guide for a kid going away to college -- Cooking Rice 101.
"We have a friend who loves to barbecue and he also loves the 'Far Side' cartoon," Steligo says. "So I did a very small, black-leather cookbook for him. It had about 30 recipes. On one side was the recipe and on the other side was a 'Far Side' greeting card. If it was beef, there was a 'Far Side' with a cow."
The best format, Steligo says, is an album with plastic pockets for individual photographs. Recipes can be slipped into the pockets, where they'll be protected from kitchen spills. Other pockets can be used for pictures, kids' art work, short food-related stories. Often pages can be added to these albums and the cookbook becomes a perpetual work in progress.
Steligo's own experience began when she started collecting the recipes of her Sicilian mother-in-law, who brought a rich cultural and culinary heritage to the kitchen. Her own mother had a more no-nonsense approach -- "round steak beaten to death with the edge of a plate, which we thought was wonderful." But she says even the simplest food can pack weighty memories.
She remembers meeting a woman who told her she loved the cookbook idea, but didn't think her family had any worthwhile recipes. "She said, 'My mother never cooked, my grandmother never cooked and I never cooked. I really have nothing to save."
Steligo turned to the woman's 4-year-old daughter. "I asked this little girl, 'What's your favorite food?' and she said, 'Macaroni and cheese.' " The child explained how she loved being in the kitchen with her mother, stirring the macaroni in a same big bowl, using the same big wooden spoon. Her mother was stunned that the child would attach so much to such an ordinary meal.
Whatever its form, food is never a minor player in life, Steligo says.
"People don't realize that as a child you grow up with certain memories of food, whether they're from cans or whether they're from your grandmother."
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The toughest thing about putting together a family cookbook is figuring out the recipes that no one has written down. Kathy Steligo had to deal with that with her mother-in-law.
Setting schedule and tapping
relatives can help task
"Most of the recipes were in her head. I said, 'How much of that do you put in?' and she said, 'You know, just enough,' or, 'You do it until it feels right.'"
The only solution was to stand with her in the kitchen, logging everything she put in a pan, pot or bowl.
"She would grab something and I would put it in a measuring cup, literally. You have to go through it step by step."
The whole project needn't be tedious, though. Steligo offers these tips for tackling the task:
Getting started>> Pick an occasion such as Mother's Day or a family reunion to broach the idea.
>> Pass around a sheet of paper so people can write down what they remember about certain dishes. Then pass out a sign-up sheet so different relatives can commit to tracking down specific recipes.
>> Talk about who might have photographs, old documents, an original copy of a recipe, or who might know how a dish originated.
>> Set a firm deadline for collecting all the material. "If you don't, you'll lose your mind. You'll have arguments. It'll just be horrible."
Pick a format>> If you're making just one keepsake book, consider who'll be using it. If that person's vision is poor, for example, use large type.
>> If you're making several copies, ask relatives to share costs, or simply duplicate the pages and let each family bind their own.
>> Visit scrapbooking stores for ideas on customizing the book.
>> Consider simple three-ring binders, which allow for additions. Or photo albums, which have plastic sheet that protect the recipes from spills.
>> You don't have to retype everything. "One of the most wonderful, practical ways is to simply organize recipe collections that have taken control of the kitchen."
Be realistic>> You probably can't do it all yourself. Tap reliable relatives for help.
"If it's too overwhelming, it doesn't get done. People mean well, but people have lives."
>> If the aim is to present the cookbook as a gift on a special occasion, but it doesn't look like you'll finish on time, don't sweat it. "You could just make a gift certificate and present the project later, because these do take awhile."
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