In the shade of an old maple tree, Betty Burkholder and a few cousins were swapping ideas for the celebration of their Mennonite family’s Canadian bicentennial.
Inspired by the little black notebooks filled with their great-grandmothers’ recipe jottings, the group gave a new twist to the show and tell of family history: a heritage cookbook.
It’s a cookbook that you’ll only find in the kitchens of descendents of Fanny Reiff and Christian Reesor, whose trek with their children and kin from Lancaster County, Penn., to Ontario’s Markham Township in 1804 gave rise to a presence that numbers 28,000.
Not just a culinary snapshot of the food (and folk remedies) that nurtured generations, the Reesors’ cookbook is its own story, as shown by the family’s logo, the Conestoga wagon, on each page. (The wagons held their possessions, but the journey from Pennsylvania was made on foot. According to Burkholder, it took six weeks and included a mother who carried a one-year-old child.)
“We were trying to capture for posterity the old recipes… we all had memories and we wanted to get those memories down for the younger generation, or else it would be lost,” Burkholder recalls in an interview.
The cookbook crew cast their net far and wide, reaching out via e-mail, newsletter and old-fashioned word-of-mouth to relatives from Australia to Alberta and points in between. As news of the project spread, the Reesor women dug deep into old recipe diaries filled with the handwritten notes kept by grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and that were now in their hands.
What emerged as the final text was a glimpse into the kitchens of old – with recipes calling for “butter the size of an egg” or “a handful of flour” – featuring a range of dishes from soups and salads to desserts and preserves. And each recipe showcases a personal memory of the “source” cook.
Into the mix, for example, went a century-old recipe for Aunt Bertha’s “lemon pie with strips,” accompanied by an anecdote from a family member who’d known this woman, born in 1867, and eaten a piece of her refreshing pie as a little girl.
The cookbook was a big hit at the family’s 2004 bicentennial reunion, selling out its several hundred copies. As shown by the Reesors, heritage cookbooks are attracting increasing interest as a low-cost, fun way to document family history. Numerous sites on the Internet now offer templates to create and print the texts, or will do it for you.
For those who prefer pen and paper, you can buy beautifully illustrated, inexpensive recipe “scrapbooks,” whose blank pages are an open invitation to write your own culinary biography.
I received such a scrapbook as a gift last Chanukah from my husband, who noticed that I’d barely come up for air in two days of reading Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes From The Rabinowitz Family, by noted California food writer Judy Bart Kancigor.
Tracing her grandparents’ immigration from a Russian shtetl to the shores of America, Kancigor blends wonderful old black-and-white snapshots with family back stories and recipes. It’s an irresistible mix of young and old, new and vintage, and its impact is evident by the kinship so many readers feel with the author’s whole mishpachah.
Swamped by submissions, Kancigor tested each recipe to determine which would make it into the book. At the same time, the project heated up phone lines from coast to coast, giving her the opportunity to mine memories from elderly relatives and catch up with far-flung family.
Elizabeth Driver, past president of the Culinary Historians of Ontario, suggests that reconnecting with the past drives the appeal of heritage cookbooks.
“In the past, one took these bonds for granted [because] everyone lived so close to each other,” she says. “People want the recipes they grew up with. We want the keys to producing loving food in the kitchen using the recipes of people you care about.”
And while technology has made it easier to pass on that traditional information, Driver recently received a box of blank recipe cards from a married daughter overseas, who asked that she write down family recipes to bring with her next time she visited.