A recipe for preserving family history

In 1996, Judith Bart Kancigor stood between two generations - one that was starting to fade away and one that had not yet begun. "My favorite aunt was dying, and my daughter-in-law was expecting our first grandchild," she says. "That's when it hit me: How would that coming generation know about our family stories and history?"

Ms. Kancigor decided - as an increasing number of Americans are doing - to create a lasting bridge, a document that would tell the family tales through their favorite meals. So she sent a letter to her aunts, first cousins, and their adult children, asking for recipes and stories. The response was overwhelming. "In-laws of in-laws begged to be in my cookbook until 160 family members had contributed 600 recipes," she says.

Kancigor ordered 500 copies of her book, "Melting Pot Memories," from a custom cookbook publisher. She and her husband wondered if "we would be stepping over those boxes in our garage for the rest of our lives."

They needn't have worried. In six weeks, every copy of the book - which includes classic Jewish recipes, old family photos, and maps of Russia (the family's homeland) - was gone. Interest spread beyond the family, and 10,000 copies later, the book has been picked up by Workman Publishing, which will publish an edition of it this year.

Kancigor's experience isn't typical, of course, but it does point to the great appeal of family cookbooks, which are one part history, one part nostalgia, and one part good eating. The availability of computers has helped fuel the trend nationwide, say experts. Everybody, it seems, wants to put his or her own culinary legacies down on paper.

Just ask Amy Gardner of King of Prussia, Pa., a 20-something media relations coordinator who began her family cookbook when her sister got married. Ms. Gardner is using her home computer to input recipes, scan in photos, and design a black-and-white photo collage for the cover. Once she's happy with the layout, she will have a copy shop print the pages on heavy paper, add a spiral binding, and laminate the cover.

The project is a "great way to solidify the relationship my family has and to preserve it," she says, savoring memories of baking cookies with her grandmothers.

"Technology is great today, so that makes [creating a family cookbook] a little bit easier," she says, noting that people who have no design skills can use a simple word-processing program. Or they can turn to the Internet, where dozens of websites offer tips and shortcuts.

One site - HeritageCookbook.com - will even do most of the work. Simply choose from several covers and graphic styles, scan in family photos, and type in recipes, following the template.

Customers pay to use the site - the fee covers multiple family members - and must order a minimum of five copies of the finished product, which is 6 by 9 inches, has a spiral binding, and arrives by mail.

Susan Love, who owns the site, says business is brisk because family cookbooks combine two popular hobbies: cooking and genealogy. "When you sit down and think about writing your memoirs, unless you're a genealogist, where do you start? But one or two recipes kind of pulls it out of you. It's a tool," she says.

Ms. Love's first orders came from Southerners, who tend to prize home cooking and preserving the past. Most of her clients are women, who dedicate their books to the memory of a mother or grandmother.

Love's best pieces of advice: Choose one editor in chief and make sure that pictures are scanned in properly at the right resolution.

Other helpful tips:

• Develop an organized system for handling the recipes and flow of information.

• Keep recipes in one place.

• Decide how to divide the cookbook.

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

• 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."

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