Capture Your Family Stories and Recipes Before They are Gone Forever

Does your Yiayia make the best baklava this side of the Atlantic Ocean? How about Tia Lupe’s enchiladas?  Are they The.Best.Enchiladas.Ever? At family get-togethers there are usually a few dishes that everyone looks forward to eating.  Many of the recipes for these dishes are not written down, have been passed down generations, and are made from memory. As our relatives age and pass on, so do the recipes for our favorite dishes. 

When our grandmother was in her eighties, we started cooking with her to learn how she made her potato salad and several other dishes. We measured and recorded the pinches of this and the handfuls of that, so that we had recipes we could follow and could make the dishes ourselves.  After she passed away my youngest sister decided she was going to put together a cookbook with all of our family’s favorite recipes. She sent emails to our relatives and close family friends that were on-line and sent letters via snailmail to those that were not.  Along with her request for favorite recipes she also asked for stories about each recipe, about our grandmother and great-grandmother, and about the farm and the ranch our grandparents lived on. She also asked people to send her photos.

Our great-grandmother, Ida Holm, was well known for her cooking abilities

What started out as a small family cookbook we were going to have copied at Kinko’s, turned into a beautiful 240-page book, the Holm Family Cookbook, that we had published ten years later.  The recipes, stories, and photos span five generations and the book includes two family trees. Our mother is an artist and several of her paintings and drawings are included in the cookbook.  


The cover of our family cookbook

The route we took was a lot of work. I personally spent countless hours typing and reformatting recipes, editing stories so that they were comprehensive to others or could fit on a page with a recipe, and scanning, touching up, and cropping photos.  Although it was a lot of work for us, it is something that will be treasured by our family for generations.










Our mother's drawings and paintings were included in the cookbook

If you feel compelled to start compiling a family cookbook. Learn from our mistakes.

We spent many, many hours trying to figure out amounts, sizes, cooking times, and other information to get recipes to a state that someone else could follow. To ensure you get a comprehensive recipe, send a template, style guide, or sample recipe for your family members to follow.  Ask for specifics. “Some onions” is not specific enough. “¾ cup onion, chopped” is specific. If a recipe includes something in a can, make sure they include the size of the can and whether or not it is drained (e.g., 8-ounce can of corn, drained). The wrong size can ruin a recipe with too much liquid.  Our seventy two year old aunt had to climb over two fences to get specifics for a recipe from a cousin. We could have saved her a lot of climbing had we set expectations from the very beginning.

Set a deadline for submitting recipes. Some people may not make that date, which is okay, you can work with what you have until the rest arrive. If you don’t set a deadline, you won’t get anything.

Get volunteers to test the recipes or at the very least, proofread the recipes. We had one recipe that asked for 1 cup of curry and the actual amount the recipe called for was 1 tablespoon. During the testing phase we were really thankful for the Internet. We emailed recipes to family and friends all over the United States for them to test. We had women, men, and children testing the recipes. The people testing were not cooks, chefs, or homemakers, they were doctors, lawyers, hairstylists, cowboys, electricians, politicians—you name the profession, we had one testing a recipe. Don’t be afraid to ask people to test, nearly everyone that we asked was thrilled to help out.

Set a firm target date for completion of the cookbook. If you don’t, you may never finish it. We did not set a target date at all and the years drug on. Technology changed, a hard drive crashed and there wasn’t a back up, which delayed the project even longer. The saddest thing that happened, which really makes me wish we had completed it sooner, was that three of the contributors never got to see the finished product. Two of the contributors died and one went blind before we finished. These three ladies would have just loved the cookbook and it breaks my heart they never got to see it.

Some of your relatives may not want to write the family stories, but may be willing to tell them. Record the stories for them.

Here is a sample story and recipe from our family cookbook:

Calhoun Coffee Cake Makes one 9- by 13-inch cake

In 1901, Joseph Calhoun put ten dollars down on a 160-acre ranch off of Mines Road in the Livermore hills. On the ranch stood a woodframe building said to have housed the driver of the horse-drawn stage that traveled from the Livermore train depot to Mendenhall Springs, about a ten mile distance. People from the “city” traveled to the Springs to “take the waters.” In 1927, two years after his wife died, Joseph left San Leandro to live at the ranch. Here he raised sheep until his death. Today his granddaughter, Noel, lives in the ranch house. Noel is my husband Wayne’s cousin and was my roommate at college. On Christmas Day, Noel holds an open house for members of the Calhoun family. The old ranch house has also been the location of many family reunions and parties. In the spring, family members tramp through the hills to enjoy the wildflowers. The Calhoun coffeecake is served at many of the events. This recipe was given to the Calhoun’s by their Mines Road neighbor, May Cole.   ~Merilyn “Tilli” Holm Calhoun

Butter for oiling the pan

2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for dusting the pan

2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup salad oil

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 cup chopped nuts

1 egg, beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Butter and flour a 9- by 13-inch pan.  In a bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, sugars, salt, and oil.  Put 3/4 cup of the mixture in a small bowl and combine it with 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon and 1/2 cup of the chopped nuts. Set aside to use as a topping. To the remaining mixture, add the egg, baking powder, baking soda, the remaining teaspoon cinnamon and buttermilk. Mix well and stir in the remaining 1/2 cup chopped nuts. Pour the batter into the pan, sprinkle with the topping, and bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool before serving.

So, get out there and get Nona’s spaghetti recipe before it’s too late! You will be glad you did!



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