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Write A Family Cookbook — Summer 2008 | Out Here Magazine

When Wendy Whipple couldn’t find a guide to help her write her family cookbook, she wrote one herself.

Create an heirloom that combines your family's history and good taste

By Laurena Mayne Davis
Photography by Teresa Scarborough

Wendy Whipple believes a family's history can be measured in the tablespoon of baking powder in buttermilk biscuits, and the walnut-sized piece of butter in pecan pie. Recipes are more than step-by-step cooking instructions, says Whipple. "Recipes are an important piece of your family's history."

The Matteson, IL, wife, mother, writer, and genealogist set out to self-publish her family's recipes, including the touching recollections and funny anecdotes behind them. But when Whipple went looking for a guide to help plan her publication, she found the marketplace lacking.

So she navigated the process on her own, then wrote a book to help others: Creating an Heirloom: Writing Your Family's Cookbook. Whether for a family reunion, or wedding or Christmas present, a family cookbook is a way to share recipes and lore with scattered relations and new generations.

First of all, don't forget that it's the cooking mistakes and the storytelling behind the food that make such a collection an heirloom and not just a retyping of the contents of a recipe box.

As for her own cooking mistakes, "My grandmother, my mother and I have had issues with pies," Whipple acknowledges.

The story of three generations of pie disasters made her book: her grandmother forgetting to add sugar to a lemon meringue, her mother overlooking the fact that cherries had to be pitted, and her substitution of whiskey for bourbon in a sweet potato pie that was still 100 proof after two hours of baking.

To get these kinds of stories, Whipple advises asking relatives for special recipes and their stories at least six months before planning to publish.

Although she followed up with a phone call if any ingredients struck her as being out of proportion, Whipple didn't field-test the recipes herself. "I figure with a family cookbook it's been tested for generations."

Consider including photographs, a family tree, and even scanned-in recipe cards showing the handwriting of the original cook.

When it comes to the design and publication of the book, there is a range of options available, depending on budget, number of books needed and the computer skills of the cookbook compiler.

A word-processing program will suffice for a basic layout. People more comfortable with desktop publishing can add more artwork. There is easy fill-in-the-blank software just for cookbooks. A number of printers also will print on-demand.

As a genealogist, Whipple urges everyone to scan old recipes, newspaper clippings, and photos as a backup, and to store the originals in a cool, dry place.

"Look at it as something priceless and precious and irreplaceable," she says, "and then do something with it."

Laurena Mayne Davis is the author of her own family cookbook.