Family History: How To Document Recipes That Aren't Written Down

Whenever I ask one of the older cooks in my family how to make a particular dish, the answer is inevitably, "Oh, you just add a little of this and a little of that..." Request that measurements be given in cups and tablespoons, and they'll either shrug or laugh. Most of the time there is no "recipe," and all the knowledge lives in their heads and hands.

"You just have to watch me make it," says my dad. He's right; there's no better way to learn than to spend time together in the kitchen. But what if you want to capture the recipe in a more concrete way for yourself and future generations? Here are some tips for documenting your grandmother's traditional noodles or your father's secret sauce (once he agrees to share!).

Get the story: A family recipe is more than just the ingredients and technique. When did they learn how to make the dish, and who taught them? What time of year was it traditionally made and served? Is there a story behind the pan they always use? Depending on the chattiness of the cook and the nature of the dish they're making, you might want to sit down and do a separate interview, and/or talk during the process of cooking (see the benefits of recording, below).

Use a video or tape recorder: This way you won't be distracted by trying to write everything down, and you can pay attention and enjoy the experience with your family member. If possible, enlist someone else to record the video, and ask them to zoom in on moments like your mom demonstrating a "handful" or "pinch" of this or that ingredient. Videos and photos can also be useful for documenting steps or techniques.

Ask them to slow down: If it makes sense, ask the cook to go a little more slowly than usual so that you can absorb what's going on. Ask them to show you how much salt is in their hand before they throw it in the pot, and keep a notepad handy to jot down helpful estimates: "oil - about 1 tablespoon" or "sugar - 1 of grandma's teacups" (you can translate this into a standard measurement later).

Learn the sensory cues: Traditional recipes often rely on the cook's senses rather than standard measurements. Ask how things are supposed to look, sound, smell, taste, and feel at different stages of the recipe. Did the cook adjust ingredient amounts, heat levels, or cooking times based on these factors?

Request feedback: Afterwards, make the dish on your own and ask for feedback. Is the texture right? Did you make it too spicy or too sweet? How would they suggest you improve it?

Have you ever documented a family recipe? Share your experiences and tips!

Related: Do You Have a Family Food Tradition? Pass It On Now!

(Images: Flickr member sonewfangled licensed under Creative Commons)

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Emily Han (formerly Emily Ho) is a writer, recipe developer and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food and herbalism. She is author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails (Fall 2015), co-founder of Food Swap Network and creator of Miss Chiffonade