Make your own cookbook for Mother’s Day

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comMay 7, 2013 




  • Websites to try

    • Compile recipes, share them or keep them private, then use their software to design a cookbook. Free to save recipes, with a charge for printing a book.

    • Has compiling and printing sections; a basic, spiral-bound book with 50 recipes and a single color picture is $36, with a minimum order of five. Has a good section of tips for how to start a cookbook project.

    • It’s for all kinds of books, including cookbooks. Download free software to compile and design your book, then order a single copy. You can sell your book in an online bookstore.

    • Has all kinds of formats, including photo books, calendars and eBooks. Includes design services and an onsite bookstore. Wide range of prices.

    • It’s mostly for turning photos into books, but if you’re using handwritten recipe cards, it’s an option.

  • Writing it down

    Remember these tips when you put together a recipe collection:

    • Include context. Don’t just say a recipe came from Aunt May. Tell who Aunt May was.

    • Be careful about measurements. How much is that handful? How big is that pan? Try to watch your family member actually making it.

    • List ingredients in the order the recipe uses them. It makes it easier to follow the recipe without leaving something out.

    • Ingredients change. Who knows what a No. 10 can is anymore? Give weights or descriptions that will help people make it in 50 years.

    • If you’re sorting through recipe clippings or cookbooks, look for spills and smudges that let you know which ones were used. Many of us tear out recipes we never make.

    • Try these books: “The Recipe Writer’s Handbook,” by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) and “Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir and More,” by Dianne Jacobs (Da Capo, 2010).

It’s too late to help you with Mother’s Day this year. With only a few days left, you should just throw yourself on the mercy of the nearest florist.

But next year? Oh, we have the perfect Mother’s Day gift for next year. And you have 369 days to do it:

Make a cookbook of your mother’s recipes.

You get something you can keep, share and cherish. Your mother gets something that shows how much you value her.

“It’s the perfect Mother’s Day gift,” says Tricia Childress. As an English and writing teacher at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, she assigns her students to create books. A lot of them end up making family cookbooks.

With today’s print-on-demand programs on websites, it’s so simple, even a mother’s grown child can do it.

“It’s easy to do something that looks professional,” Childress says. “The quality has gotten much better.”

Help on the Web

Making family cookbooks is such a big deal that the Internet is crawling with sites.

Anne Curran, a digital strategist in New York, started a new service in November,, after she went looking for the secret to her grandmother’s chocolate cookie recipe and stumbled on her own mother’s handwritten recipe notebook, started by Curran’s aunt in 1969.

Flipping through the pages of scribbled notes and handwritten recipes, including her great-grandmother’s iced tea, she was struck by the emotional value of the collection.

“It was so visible to me – this was the story of our family.” Curran had wanted to start her own Web company, so she asked herself: “What’s the digital version of this cookbook?”

She came up with a site that lets people compile recipes into collections that can be kept private or shared with friends and family.

It’s free to set up a collection online, and you pay to print cookbooks, from a single copy to hundreds.

Childress’ students use services such as, or Like Curran’s service, most are free to upload recipes and design a book. You pay to print it: Usually, a 20-page book costs $13 for a small softcover or up to $50 for a large hardcover with a photo on the front. Editing or design services are extra, but you don’t have to use them.

With Blurb, students can create a book and family members can buy copies through Amazon. So a school project ends up being something everybody can experience.

One of Childress’ students uses images of the handwritten recipe, with all the different handwriting, as the art.

“It had such an emotional impact,” Childress says. “You get the food-splashed-on-the-card experience.”

Low-tech methods

If the Web isn’t for you, you can go the low-tech route. Matt Kinney of Charlotte says his family cookbook is as simple as it gets: Copied pages in a three-ring notebook.

He thinks it started 10 years ago, when his mother came to a Christmas gathering of their extended family with copies of her great-grandmother’s biscuit recipe for everyone.

It was such a hit, they started having everyone bring a recipe with enough copies to go around. They’ve even brought a three-hole punch to the gatherings, so recipes can go right into binders.

“It ends up being a mashup of family recipes and things,” he says. “Everybody writes the story of (the recipe) – ‘I discovered this here and we had it every Sunday.’ ”

It’s so popular, his wife’s family started doing it. Then her uncle made a collection as a tribute to his mother, a retired home economics teacher.

Kinney loves how the collections trace changes through the generations. Older family members share recipes that are sort of similar – traditional Southern. Younger members contribute things that are more eclectic, like guacamole, or with more exotic ingredients, like agave syrup. With far-flung family, they get a peek inside each other’s lives.

“It’s so neat to have access to those recipes,” he says. “The family member you don’t see that often – you realize what’s on their table.”

Gathering the recipes

So how do you get the recipes? We’ve all known older cooks who dismiss requests for a recipe with “Oh, this old thing?” Or they give a recipe, but the measurements and method aren’t clear.

That’s why you need to do this now, while older family members are still around.

“One of the problems people have is this aging population,” says Curran of “Many of them have amazing recipes, but they’re all in memory. And so someone in the family has to actually transcribe and create the recipe.”

Her suggestion: Before you get together to watch your grandmother make that chocolate coconut cake, look up similar recipes online. That way, when you watch her make it, you’ll know what to expect and you’ll be able to spot what she might be doing differently.

It also might help to divide up the work: One person can be in charge of nagging family members to share recipes while another takes charge of typing and formatting.

Childress had used Shutterfly to make books of her vacation pictures, but she had never tried a cookbook herself until last Christmas, when her Lebanese mother-in-law came to stay for a month.

Her mother-in-law doesn’t speak English, so they couldn’t talk about cooking on the phone. But when they were together, they could shop and cook.

Childress was able to get enough recipes to create a book, and she made two copies, one for herself and one for her mother-in-law.

However you do it, remember that recipes aren’t just dishes you cook. They are the story of your family.

Childress’ students end up learning a lot more than what their families eat. One student included a chicken liver story that she said was better than the recipe. Here it is:

The student hated chicken livers and remembered coming home from school to find the windows open to let out the smell. But it turned out the reason everyone made the recipe was to honor his great-grandmother, who emigrated with Russia wearing a heavy coat with the recipe hidden in the coat.

At Ellis Island, an inspector made a chalk mark on her coat, indicating that he thought she was sick and shouldn’t be allowed into the country. She snuck into a bathroom and ditched the coat, but she kept the recipe. She made it into America with nothing else.

“So the whole family now makes the dish, even though they don’t like it,” Childress says.

Are there great stories waiting in your family’s recipes? You can make book on it.

Purvis: 704-358-5236

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