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A recipe for preserving family history

(Page 2 of 2)

• Test recipes beforehand and make any necessary notes or adjustments. In the early 1900s, for example, many women used a "glass" of liquid.

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• Make sure recipes are explicit enough that even beginning cooks can use them.

• Choose which pictures to include and provide enough caption information so that future generations will understand what each photo represents and who is in it.

• Include letters or other relevant items that will tell part of the family story.

• Start gathering recipes and stories while elderly relatives are still alive. Otherwise, some favorites may be lost.

• Proofread, proofread, proofread, but if a typo does slip by, don't get too upset.

After all, family cookbooks aren't for show. They're a connection to the past, which is why they're especially important to people in uncertain or difficult times.

"Emotional memories are tied to particular flavors and smells," says Thomas Shipley, associate professor of psychology at Temple University. He suspects that interest in comfort food and family cookbooks has intensified since 9/11, because people want to evoke "some of the security they felt in childhood."

One reason old recipes are so treasured is that they bring back memories of particular relatives. "Years ago, people made the same dishes over and over," says Kancigor. Home cooks didn't try to impress guests with flashy new dishes. "If you went to Aunt Sally's house, you knew you were going to get her sweet-and-sour meatballs."

That kind of familiarity provides another kind of comfort today, when counting calories and cutting carbs seem to be a national obsession. "By virtue of using a family recipe, you may be freeing yourself from the anxiety associated with dieting," says Dr. Shipley. "Rather than being concerned about how much butter goes into a dish, you think, 'This is how Grandma did it.' "

While family cookbooks comfort many people, their lasting value may come from the fact that they are often modern-day versions of the family Bible - the book in which the family's history is recorded.

"The oral tradition gets passed down, but it also gets lost if you don't write it down," notes Kancigor.

To those just starting their cookbooks, she offers one important tip: Connect with many family members, because "the key to your family history may be in the drawer of some cousin you haven't met yet." One of her cousins had pictures of her great-grandparents that she had never seen before.

Despite the growing interest in publishing family cookbooks, however, some people - such as Cindy Rakowitz of Los Angeles - believe that saving recipes isn't enough. She wants to preserve the tradition of one generation's teaching another through oral instruction.

As a child, she spent weekends with her German grandparents, who were escapees from the Nazis. Her grandmother taught her to memorize the ingredients and directions, rather than reading them. She can still recite the recipe for her grandmother's matzo ball soup.

"Traditions passed on from grandmother to granddaughter are most special when they are 'programmed into the brain,' " she says. "There are so many people who have learned the recipes at a very young age, and then repeat the motions and the ingredients from their hearts, not from a piece of paper."

But for many families, learning from Grandma is not an option, for a variety of reasons. In those cases, a family cookbook may be the only connection between the past and the present, the New World and the Old.

"It is one thing to learn history in school," says Kancigor. "By learning about their family, [people] understand that history is evolving and learn how their own family is a part of it."