Have a sweet holiday and save kitchen memories while you can
November 28th, 2012
10:30 AM ET
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Everything tasted better when my grandma was around.

Growing up, we didn't get to see my dad's side of the family all that often, but I noticed at some point that all the food we ate in Grandma Kinsman's presence was exponentially more delicious. Later on, I came to realize that it wasn't due to some special grandmotherly mojo, but rather that she used real butter rather than margarine, and my family shopped accordingly when she was in town.

No matter the ingredients, I was predisposed to enjoy her cooking. I loved her and she loved me, her weird, short-haired, misfit granddaughter, even if the rest of the world wasn't inclined to. Seldom did I feel that love so strongly as when her yearly shipment of holiday cookies arrived.

These weren't just any old Snickerdoodles or oatmeal raisins (though I surely wouldn't have turned up my nose at anything she was kind enough to offer me). It was a parcel of wonder that would arrive by way of the U.S. Postal Service: one or two (sometimes two!) department store short boxes with the tops bowed out by the goodies nestled within.

This was a massive undertaking. Aided by my Aunt Myrna, my grandmother would craft hundreds, or sometimes thousands of unfailingly scrumptious sugar-dusted, nut-crusted, frosting-slathered, jam dotted cookies, each nestled into a small sleeve of wax paper. Unwrapping them (after we'd all squabbled and honed in on each family member's favorites) was a small, but momentous event - a visit, a hug, a memory to treasure.

And memories are all I have. Both Grandma and Aunt Myrna have passed on, and for a million small, silly, selfish and short-sighted reasons, I never made the time to get into the kitchen with them and learn at their experienced hands. Even if I had the recipes (which I do not, and other than Swedish Gems, I don't even know names with which to research), I'd be lacking the infinitesimal details: the precise piping of the jam into a sugar-dusted fold, the point at which to press the walnut half so it stays lodged in the bottom of the cookie, the consistency of the chocolate frosting so it enrobes but doesn't drip or crack.

Excellent baking is equal parts science, experience and love and I unwittingly cheated myself out of several of those key ingredients. Please, if you still have the chance, ensure a lifetime of sweet holiday memories for yourself and your family and get into the kitchen with your older loved ones NOW.

Scan It
Do your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or parents have a box of hand-written recipes, yellowed newspaper clippings utterly essential to making the holiday cake you spend the rest of the year dreaming about? Pay a visit with camera in hand, or see if they'd mind parting with them for a short while while you archive for posterity.

Share It
Don't go hogging all that history just for yourself! While it's not quite the same as having the actual sauce-stained and flour-dusted card in hand, chances are, everyone in your family would be delighted by a custom-made cookbook. Make a printable PDF to share digitally, or publish a private family website or blog so you all can share your favorite kitchen memories.

If you've got a slightly bigger budget, consider a print-on-demand publishing service like Lulu or Cafepress or a recipe-specific site like Tastebook and loved ones to order a copy, or surprise them with a holiday gift that will last a lifetime.

Record It
Measurements? Shmeasurements. Many home recipes lose something in translation from hand to handwritten. Capture all those pinches, dashes and smidgens on video, in the cook's own words. You don't have to be all Martin Scorsese about it - just flip on your video camera or your cell phone and hit record. Ask questions along the way - "Who taught you to make this?" "Did my mom like to eat this?" "Was it always easy to get the ingredients?" - and you'll end up with a story that feeds more than just your stomach.

Is grandma camera-shy? See if she'll go for just a voice recording, and maybe some shots of her hands and the steps of the dish. You can get creative in the editing process later; what counts right now is that you're spending some time together.

Cook It
Don't have access to a camera, or just don't dig the notion of sitting back and documenting? That's okay - just go ahead and get your hands dirty. There is no better way to truly learn a recipe than to get in there and make it yourself. Ask the cook for a coaching session so you can get a feel for the texture of a dough, when the yeast has risen just enough or exactly how the sauce ought to run off a spoon or taste at this point in the process. Then, when it's all done, sit down together and feast.

While your future renditions of the dish may or may not taste exactly like your loved one's, I guarantee you this: you will never, ever eat it alone.

Family recipes are so much more than scraps of paper; they're a pact to keep the past alive and share it with generations to come. Scan or photograph a handwritten, heirloom family recipe (the more stained and well-loved-looking, the better), along with a story about the person who brought it into your life and a memory of enjoying it with relatives or friends. Share it in the comments below, or on your own blog (and post the link).

We'll showcase our favorites on Eatocracy, and you'll bask in the warm, happy glow of the knowledge that you made your Grandma (or great uncle, or second cousin in your mother's side) a superstar and preserved their kitchen legacy.

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Filed under: Buzz • Chilled Out and Cheery • Christmas • Cookies • Family Recipe Index • Favorites • Feature • Holiday • Holidays • iReport • Make • Recipes

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. therealchiffonade

    This is SO important I can't stress it enough. Walk around behind the people you love while they cook and write EVERYTHING down.

    An elderly relative made the best Pizza Rustica I had ever eaten. I asked her for the recipe. When we were discussing the crust, this exchange took place.

    Me: Frances, how much water do you add to the flour and fat?
    Frances: A glass.
    Me: What size glass?
    Frances: A nice glass.
    I walked to the cupboard and pulled down 3 glasses of varying volume.
    Me: Which glass, Frances.
    Frances: This one.
    Me: OK, 8 ounces.
    Worth. Every. Second.

    January 6, 2014 at 3:46 pm |
  2. asktc

    Several years ago we sold my parents' house. While my parents had been in Florida since 2004, the recipe books and cards were still here. I carefully went through the recipe cards and books and scanned the ones that I remembered (and several that I didn't) and re-transcribed some that had faded over time.

    Despite the recipe cards, I still haven't managed to make the spoon bread recipe as lifted from an early sixties recipe book... and I've never found the recipe card for my mother's date nut bread (she, at 86, doesn't remember where it came from).

    My kids are now ten and my daughter has asked me to go through and teach her some of these that I've made since they were infants. I'm now taking the time ti explain to her the history behind the recipes, both culturally (in the case of things like Matzo Balls) and how they fell into the family food chain.

    I've learned not to hoard recipes as I've seen some others do. While it's nice to have some family secret recipes and such, no one is going to take your Aunt Petunia's secret Bourbon Ball recipe and start the next Coca Cola Company.

    December 29, 2013 at 4:27 am |
  3. Anjaleck

    Thank you for a lovely article and for the advice. I've read the comments here and so many touch my heart.

    My mom couldn't cook. Period. Even she admitted that. She could make cookies though!! And we would make cookies together during the holidays – while she was running the oven, she would read me the ingredients and measurements for the next batch of cookies and I would measure and mix. Of course, that lead to some hilarious mistakes... like the time I heard four teaspoons and it was 1/4 tsp... of salt. Those were the saltiest gingersnaps I've ever tasted! I treasure the memories because I lost my mother young. During the holidays making those cookies brings her back to me. I have several Depression Era recipes and ones from the WWII era (where rationing made adjustments to typical recipes necessary) because she had a wonderful cookie recipe collection. I was also lucky that my mother gave me my grandmother's handwritten recipes when my grandmother passed. I started creating my own cookbook in 1995 and it includes all the wonderful recipes from Mom and Grandma as well as those great ones I've discovered or made or friends have given me. My daughter and granddaughters have been overheard arguing over who gets my cookbook! :)

    December 29, 2013 at 12:27 am |
  4. fastrack

    My mother couldn't cook worth a damn, except for her fried chicken. Good thing it was good because we had that fried chicken every single Sunday until I was 14 or 15; that's when I took over the kitchen. She didn't know what to do with my grandmother's one piece solid maple rolling pin, so now I have it. I have always cooked without a set recipe. Nowadays, I document every step and share with those I know who love to cook. Thanks, Kat, for putting us all on a walk down that road of wonderful memories.

    December 28, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
  5. evelynmason

    Thank you for this article. I am not a cook. In fact I am so bad, my late mother used to claim they must have given her the wrong baby at the hospital. At 77 and after 46 years of marriage, prior to becoming a widow, I still can't cook but, every Christmas I bake Tea Cakes. My mother used to fix them and tell stories of her childhood years in the south and how she and her siblings would steal Tea Cakes from the hiding place. Tea Cakes were also related to slaves as their treat while the fancy stuff was eaten in the big house. When I spend a couple days making Tea Cakes, it is a day of fellowship with my mother. When I hand them out as gifts, it is with a card bearing the recipe and photos of the line of women in my family that the recipe has traveled. I have no children to pass this on to so I am passing it around as best I can while I am here. Thanks again for this heart warming article.

    December 28, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • Susan Salway

      What a lovely idea, Evelyn Mason...I wish I were on your cookie list! I am widowed too, with no daughter to pass our family cookbooks to, and I think I will borrow your idea.

      December 29, 2013 at 3:45 am |
    • Jackson White

      PLEASE post your recipe for Tea Cakes!!

      December 29, 2013 at 6:10 am |
  6. Jennifer Edwards

    We had a "cooking school" a few years ago in my home kitchen. My Grandmother taught me and all of my cousins her signature recipes. I invited the Star Tribune and they used it as their front page story on Thanksgiving Day 2008: http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/35166929.html

    December 15, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
  7. Michele

    My father-in-law's Sunday morning pancakes were legendary during my husband's childhood. Made from scratch, almost every inch of counter covered with dirty dishes by the end...My FIL would make the pancakes when we came for our annual visit from out-of-state so that our children could enjoy. My husband used a video camera to record the "Making of the Pancakes" one time, and would have to watch the video whenever he would get a hankering for his dad's pancakes. To save time he finally wrote down all the directions...on the edge of the Sunday comics. After years of pulling the increasingly battered comics page from my stack of recipe clippings, he finally wrote down the directions formally, on a recipe card. The card makes it easier these days, but the video is a treasure in itself as my FIL has been gone for 10 years now. I highly recommend going for video; it brings back so many good memories.

    December 4, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
    • mikeb

      Dear Michele: Your story reminds me of my grandfather and his pancakes It almost mirrored my life completely with the exception that my grandfather was so secretive with his recipes. He is now deceased and I miss his pancakes so much but there is no recording of his way for makig pancakes. I have tried a lot of recipes but it is not the same. Just wondering if you would be kind enough to share your family pancake recipe. I know it is family thing but I would appreciate it if you would just so that I could make those dear old cakes from scratch. Thanks

      December 29, 2013 at 4:34 am |
  8. singlefun

    Thanks, Kat, for a great and important article. My grandmother actually gave me the greatest gift; I was about 28 years old and out in the world, working in a city far away from home. Of course, every year I came home for the holidays. That particular Christmas, my grandmother called and asked me to come and stay at her house for 2 days, to learn how to cook her city-wide-famous perogis. (the Polish-language radio station in town had a midday announcer who regularly talked about her perogis and called her "the Perogi lady." ) This was the only time that she ever asked me to do something like this. I thought it was weird but I was definitely up for it and was excited to learn. Anyway, I did learn exactly how she made them. It was funny - she never ever had even a harsh tone with anyone - but I remember her getting a bit frustrated with my lack of ability to knead the dough quickly enough (you need strong wrists to do it right!) - she brusquely called me a "city girl!" and nudged me away from the dough so that she could finish and then let me know that it had to be done in a certain amount of time or the consistency would not be right. This cooking job was clearly very important to her – more important that i could know.

    After the holidays, I was back at work and Grandma uncharacteristically called me and chatted about everything and nothing for an hour and a half. She made the same phone call to every grandchild she had that week. She then asked her son (my uncle) uncharacteristically to go out and get her her favorite fast food - a chili dog from a place down the street that she had not been to in decades. That night, she passed in her sleep.

    I was able to write down grandma's famous perogi recipe, including the "measurements" ("how large is your hand?"), and have since shared it with family members. Thanks, Grandma!

    To all you out there - definitely don't allow these family traditions to die. Get the recipes now, while you still can.

    December 3, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  9. mgcady

    I am such an oddity when it comes to family food history. I don't have one. Grandparents all passed on before my older brother was born and my Mom and Aunt (Dad's sister) both overcooked food and used less than stellar/fresh ingredients.

    I get my love of cooking and the majority of my cookbook collection from other sources. And thankfully I either inherited the cooking gene from someone else or taught myself to overcome genetics.

    December 2, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  10. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    I really ADORE the holidays. I love spending time with my family. I love the smells that come from the hard work my dad is putting forth in the kitchen. I love sitting down to dinner and seeing my family members faces, all hungry and ready to dig in. I love passing out gifts by the fire and laughing when the dogs cause a rukus. I love playing board games and laughing when my father passes out at the table from both eating too much and perhaps, drinking too much? These memories I relish in their entirety and always look forward to them when the holidays come around again!

    December 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  11. ™©JbJiNg!eŚ®™

    I regret never spending time cooking with my great grandmother, but I was a bit too young. My mom and aunt wrote out some of her 'recipes' if you can call them that. Chicken and Dumplings = "Cook a big fat chicken", etc. LOL She used to raise and kill her own chickens, never had a job, and never even rode in an automobile until she was around 80 year old. I have mastered her breakfast gravy though! Thanksgiving always has her green beans (with black eyed peas and bacon of course). Ah, the memories.

    November 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  12. katiahetter

    I made a cookbook for my mom when I was in high school and her mother and aunt were still alive. When I showed my mom the present, she loved it - and she also said they had made up the recipes! Neither of them actually cooked from recipes but it was fun to read their guesses about how they cooked their best dishes.

    November 28, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  13. Sir Biddle

    Great article KAT and very solid advice. Reminds me of my father who passed away this year. While we have his recipes on hand for the cooking structure, there really is no way to replicate his essence of love that he put into food he made at our restaurant.

    November 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  14. Ann

    My mom made the most incredible Thanksgiving stuffing and gravy. I used to help her out with it every year, but never really knew the details. One year, I asked her for more specific directions, and wrote them down. THANK GOODNESS. That ended up being her last Thanksgiving. (I've mastered the stuffing, but my gravy has never been quite as good.)

    November 28, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  15. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    I've always envied these types of memories. I was raised by a single father WAY up North far from any extended family. I think it's why enjoy Christmas movies. The massive family gatherings kind of fascinate me. This Thanksgiving was sort of tough. NGF and I are no longer an item. I spent it alone watching football and made my first turkey! And it was fabulous.

    November 28, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I'm so sorry about NGF. Hope you're taking fabulous care of yourself.

      November 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  16. HarleyGirl

    I'm sure a lot of you have done this before, but when we have a bridal shower for anybody, we do a bring your favorite recipes on cards. The soon to be married person then has many family recipes for their own, written by hand by that person. Something very simple, but meaningful for the recipient. My grandma wasn't much of baker, but she made the best potato salad that you have ever had. I miss her!

    November 28, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  17. Truth™@Kat

    Thank you for a heartfelt and sensitive essay. Perfect picture to accompany as well.

    November 28, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  18. MrBCreepy

    Lovely story. Life is short and we should learn what we can from family.

    December 22, 2011 at 3:18 pm |

    recipes seem to pop up during family get togethers

    December 20, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  20. pvfrompv

    I'm still having trouble letting go of the fact that one of my sisters ended up with my mom's handwritten little notebook of recipes and then due to her lifestyle "can't find it" and doesn't even really remember that she has it. And I really have a problem with our grandmother's rolling pin, carved from a single piece of maple that she doesn't know what happened to it either. Just because she was the "gourment cook" in another one of her lives. So much for being the sentimental one.

    December 20, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Jamie

      I won't tell you not to be upset by that because my mother carefully wrote down a list of what I wanted (she INSISTED I tell her), then gave it all away. The only things (1 childhood toy and an antique ring) that she knew I wanted that weren't disposed of were things she'd liked too well herself to get rid of. SO: I set about buying old things that I liked and made my own memories by enjoying the hunt. Buy old cookbooks or check them out of the library or even go online and make a collection of recipes. I feel for you but I've gotten over (most) of my own pain and hope you can too.

      December 20, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  21. SandyfeetsinFla

    One year I couldn't find the recipe card with my grandmother's Bourbon Ball recipe. I started scouring the internet for a recipe that was similar. Come to find out my grandmother's secret recipe was from Reader's Digest in 1965. It was a "back of the box" recipe, not her own secret one! So, as Meli said, check those old standard cookbooks... BH&G Big Red Checked Cookbook, Betty Crocker, etc are still good solid sources.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Ann

      Hmm, I bet those are the same Bourbon Balls my mom made!

      November 28, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  22. Kim

    Don't wait too long to ask older relatives for their cooking secrets because memory problems may interfer long before anyone realizes a problem. I didn't realize the extent of my great-aunt's memory problems until the day we tried to make raviloi together. She ended up in tears over the frustration.

    December 20, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • CN Red

      The poor woman, that is so sad,

      December 20, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Kristine

      My Grandmother's recipe for Homemade Beef Vegetable Soup went to the grave with her - each time someone asked for the recipe she would say - oh, just come on over and I'll make it for you!. I have since decided that if someone wants one of my recipes I gladly give it to them!

      December 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  23. Debdoub

    When most of the "kids" were in college, my grandma wrote out recipes for all 10 of us – her favorites and ours, by hand. It is one of the best gifts I've ever received. After she died, I asked my grandpa if I could borrow her recipes so I could use a cookbook program to publish them. Everyone in the family received a cookbook and a few of us were smart enough to buy a few extra copies so we could pass them down to any kids we had.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  24. dragonwife1

    My sister did a "friends and family" cookbook a couple of years ago, and it's wonderful. I've never understood the whole "secret family recipe" thing - unless you're planning to sell the food commercially, why not share the recipe with everyone and spread the yumminess around? Chances are the people you give it to will add their own touches and make it slightly different anyhow. I have an incredible eggnog cookie recipe that I've given out more times than I can count, and everyone still wants me to make them because "mine aren't as good as yours". And it's a good thing I give it out, because a few years back my original copy of the recipe (in one of the annual Christmas cookie magazines) disappeared somehow, and I had to get a copy back from my daughter!

    December 20, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  25. Meli

    If you have to recreate a recipe from your family history, either because someone won't share or because they've passed on, don't overlook the old standard cookbooks as source material. My grandmother passed when I was a little girl, and my most vivid memories of her are food based. One day, I decided I wanted to recreate her biscuit recipe. I started out with the Better Homes and Gardens big red cookbook. I burst into tears on the first bite, because those were her biscuits exactly. I didn't have to tinker at all. And it's likely that at least one "secret family" recipe in your family's history came from a common source as well – remember, our ancestors didn't have Food Network or allrecipes.com to look to, they had Betty Crocker and BH&G.

    December 20, 2011 at 6:42 am |
  26. Noxious.Sunshine

    I recently acquired my dad's ever famous Spaghetti Sauce recipe (something he said he'd never tell any of us kids). It's extremely sacred to me. No, I don't plan to share it with my siblings. When my older sister asked me for it, I simply told her to ask our Dad herself (something I know she'll never do because she doesn't bother to check in with my dad or attempt to talk to him). He doesn't have much time left (so he says.. He just had his 3rd heart attack July '11 and it's a miracle my mom was driving their big truck instead of him), so any bits of information/advice, stories, recipes, and time spent together with my daughter and me are some of the things that are most important to me. I worry everyday about how he's feeling, what kind of shape he's in, and whether he'll make it to see another holiday together or not and thank God to have him with us each day.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:17 am |
    • Hannah007

      Wouldn't want to be your sibling..why not share?

      December 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
      • Noxious.Sunshine

        Why? Because my siblings never bother to call my parents. My brother only calls and visits when he wants money and my sister just flat-out won't bother trying to talk to my dad. She knows both of my parents hate texting, but she does it anyway. When my dad had his 3rd heart attack, she called one time to check on him. She didn't call them again for 6 months to tell them Happy Thanksgiving/Anniversary. It's not my place to share my father's recipe. It's his. It may sound harsh, but if they'd take the time to be decent human beings towards my parents (and me and each other), things would be different.

        December 20, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
      • Happy Omnivore@Sunshine

        It doesn't sound harsh, it's tough love. More power to ya!

        December 21, 2011 at 6:43 am |
      • Noxious.Sunshine

        @ HAPPY : Thanks! lol

        December 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  27. Kristin

    It is an essential tradition in our family that the making of traditional Norwegian delicacies as lefse and krumkake are passed down. Also, we have taken turns making kransekage (wedding cake) for the various weddings. Unfortunately, my grandmother and great-grandmother have passed on, but we we get together to make these treats, they are with us.

    December 19, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • gtalog

      Upload them to CuisienLinks dot com, and keep them private. You can set privacy settings, to share these recipes with only your family members, or select friends on the site. That way, you will not lose these recipes, and they will remain private.

      December 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  28. Mama Mia!

    My step-mother tossed my mom's cookbooks, and my dad never measured anything. So I'm making new culinary traditions for my children, since mine are lost to me.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Dot

      A good idea to start your own family recipes and traditions. Be careful though with what you try as children may decide that is the tradition and you are stuck with it. One lady told me about when she was so busy one Christmas Eve and just did not have time to make a special meal, so she quickly made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. The children insisted on that menu the rest of the time they spent at home!

      November 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  29. CLS

    A few years ago my daughter took it upon herself to do a family cook book that had everyones favorites, it was a labour of love. We all use it and hope it will be passed down through many generations.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  30. gma94

    The only things my Grandma could make were creamed chipped beef and roast beef gravy (not at the same time) but my Grandfather...now THERE was a cook! His chicken was to die for.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  31. RichardHead

    Thank You Kat,Sadly I too did not do this with my mothers cooking,yet I do have her old cookbooks. They still make me smile.

    December 19, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
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