How to Create a Family Cookbook to Save Holiday Recipes

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article—just in time for all the Thanksgiving cooking—Gena discusses how to create a family cookbook to showcase all your favorite holiday recipes.

What is your favorite food served during the winter holidays? If you’re like me, you probably have many holiday foods you enjoy and you’ve added to that list over the years. Each December my sister-in-law and her sisters bake dozens and dozens of cookies, some native to the Azores where her family is from. It’s nice to have those baked gifts to look forward to each year. I also have treasured memories of Thanksgivings past when my great-grandmother would make pies and the dinner table would be laden with appetizers. Some of those appetizers we only ate at Thanksgiving. (I must admit I love appetizers almost more than the main meal.)

What are your family holiday food traditions? What recipes have been shared by your family for generations? What new traditions have you started? Do you have photos of holiday family gatherings? The holidays are the perfect time to start compiling and documenting those family recipes and good memories.

1) Define Family Cookbook Format

One great way to preserve that family history is with a family cookbook. You might be thinking that a cookbook is a huge endeavor requiring hundreds of recipes and time to format and compile the information. But a family cookbook can be organized in a variety of ways. At its simplest, each recipe can be printed on a sheet of paper and then all of the pages combined into a 3-ring notebook or provided as a digital file for each family member to print in the manner they see fit. This project can be as large or as small as you wish. Remember that it’s more important that you preserve those family memories than “publishing” the perfect family cookbook.

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2) Gather Family Recipes

How should you gather recipes? Consider emailing family members and requesting their recipes you enjoy, and ask them to include an additional recipe or two that they frequently make. You could also wait until the next family dinner and bring a laptop, tablet, or recipe cards and have each person write out their recipes and memories.

Afraid you won’t have enough recipes to fill up a whole cookbook? What about using old holiday recipes from the newspaper? Choose a time period and a place, or even specific newspapers from the community your family has lived in. The Advanced Search feature for GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives lets you narrow your results by a date, or a date range, and a place. If you are interested in a certain type of recipe, say one for the holiday favorite pumpkin pie, you can also search by the name of the recipe or ingredients.

pumpkin pie recipe, Evening News newspaper article 20 December 1922

Evening News (San Jose, California), 20 December 1922, page 7

Don’t forget to search on your female ancestor’s name or family surnames just in case a family member contributed a recipe to a newspaper food column or won a recipe-related prize.

Tasty Almond Torta, Boston Record American newspaper article 12 July 1964

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 12 July 1964, page 13

3) Add a Pinch of Genealogy, a Dash of Photos

Once you have your all your family recipes, enhance your cookbook project. Include genealogical information or photographs. In a family cookbook I own, the compiler made sure to annotate each recipe and include how the recipe provider was related to a common ancestor—a great idea for learning more about distant cousins. Photos of cooking heirlooms could also be added. Consider making a few of the recipes yourself and taking photos of the process. This can be especially meaningful when documenting recipes that the older generation in your family cooks or bakes.

Once you have all of the content for your cookbook, decide how you will finish it. Local office supply stores offer printing and binding services. You can also use an online cookbook publishing company that specializes in printing family and fundraising cookbooks. Printing can get expensive so make sure to look at all your options, and perhaps ask family members to contribute to the cost. Feel free to get creative by doing things like making a scrapbook or just gathering everything and distributing your document on a flash drive or CD. A family blog or website could also be used that would allow family members to access and download just the recipes they are interested in.

Share Your Food Memories

What’s on your family table this holiday season? What are some of the recipes you are looking forward to? Take some time now to record and share those fond food memories so that they are not lost with each generation.

Share some of your holiday food memories with us. Join us on Pinterest and pin your recipe to our board, Old Fashioned Family Recipes. Simply request an invite to post to our shared group board. Not on Pinterest? No problem, share your recipes in the comments below.

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Related Holiday Recipe Articles & Resources:

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Newspaper Recipe Contests: Was Your Ancestor a Contest Winner?

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how recipe contests that ran in local newspapers can turn out to be a surprisingly good source of genealogy information about your female ancestors.

Have you ever won a contest sponsored by your local newspaper? Newspapers run all kinds of promotions aimed at encouraging new readership and subscribers. Contests commonly run by newspapers include photo contests, recipe contests, writing contests and coloring contests. By participating in these newspaper contests you can win tickets to an event, have your artwork featured in a special edition, or even win a cash award. The added bonus of winning a newspaper contest is that your name and perhaps even your picture will appear in the newspaper.

Newspaper contests can include all generations. Many years ago my oldest son was one of the “winners” in a newspaper coloring contest. All of the winners had their picture taken with their award-winning entry, and these photographs were published in the local paper. Since that time I’ve had other adults tell me about winning coloring contests sponsored by their local newspapers when they were children.

Are you looking for genealogy records about female family members? A newspaper recipe contest may be the one place your ancestor had her name published—and possibly her picture.

In some cases the winning recipes would have been featured in additional publications after their initial run in the newspaper. Some newspapers even went on to publish a cookbook featuring the recipes submitted from their contest winners.

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, title page

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, title page. From Google Books.

The Daily News Cook Book (1896) is a cookbook of menus originally contributed to the Chicago Record newspaper’s daily contest for “menu for a day.” Many of the menus end with the name and street address of the woman submitting it. The recipes in this cookbook were contributed not only by women from the Chicago area, but also from other parts of the United States—as shown in the following example, a contribution from a Mrs. Tebbetts in San Diego, California.

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, page 12

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, page 12. From Google Books.

The Los Angeles Times was another newspaper that conducted recipe contests and then published cookbooks based on entrees. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, A. L. Wyman was one of their food writers and tested over 7,000 entrees for their 1923 recipe contest. Entrees, both the winning and the losing, were then compiled into the Los Angeles Times Prize Cook Book.*

The great thing about recipe contests was that even women who lived out of town, and for that matter out of state, may have been featured. This is a good reminder that while it is important to search for your ancestor and their place of residence in a database, sometimes a search on a name alone without a location may yield unanticipated results—your ancestor’s name may pop up in a source far from home.

This 1922 newspaper article points out that the week’s recipe winners included those from other Louisiana cities in addition to New Orleans. The two winners from New Orleans, one winning for her deviled kidney dish and the other for her Bordelaise sauce, had their names and street addresses published.

Recipe Contest Honors Divided by Housewives, Times-Picayune newspaper article 23 December 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 December 1922, page 19

While newspapers held their own recipe competitions, they also reported on other recipe contests. This 1928 newspaper article reports on a contest held by the food company Libby, and says that winning recipes would be published in future advertisements for that company. The winner’s names and addresses are provided—key clues to help you trace your family history.

Local Women Win in Recipe Contest, Riverside Daily Press newspaper article 19 October 1928

Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, California), 19 October 1928, page 7

All kinds of food companies sponsored recipe contests. Consider this one from Sapphire Sardine Company, offering cash prizes for recipes that featured sardines as the principal ingredient.

$50 Prize Recipe Contest!, Evening Tribune newspaper article 12 April 1923

Evening Tribune (San Diego, California), 12 April 1923, page 8

While newspapers documented the times and events in our ancestors’ lives, they also served a social function. As you research female ancestors, consider the activities they may have pursued in looking for mentions of their name. Are recipe contests a source of genealogy? Yes, they place your ancestor in a specific place in time. Like more traditional genealogical sources they are a names list that can be used to pursue other leads.

*“The Wyman Test,” by Leilah Bernsteon, July 5, 2000 available online http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jul/05/food/fo-47809

The World Was Your Ancestor’s Oyster: Food in Family History

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explores one of her many interests: the connection of food and cooking to family history, revealing how much oysters were part of our ancestors’ diets.

What did your ancestors eat? Is this something you ever ponder? As family historians, the actual everyday activities of our ancestors can help to bring the dates and places we research to life.

In some cases the food our ancestors ate is quite different from what we are accustomed to today. With the lack of refrigeration and transportation, it’s no surprise that there were regional differences in cuisine. Considering the limited ability to transport and preserve ingredients, the variety of what was available to harvest locally, and the food preferences of local ethnic/immigrant populations, it is not surprising that the food that was served in various areas could be extremely different. A specialty enjoyed by those living in one region of the United States was all but unknown in another. While to some extent this is still true of modern cuisine today, as you can travel to different regions of the United States and taste local favorites not served where you live, these food differences are not as dramatic as they were 100 years ago.

So what were some food commonalities? Well there were many American foods that were feasted upon across the regions. One such food that was enjoyed by almost all Americans in the nineteenth century was oysters. Today oysters, depending on where you live, are usually a delicacy because of the price they command. It would also not be unusual to find people who have never even tried an oyster, raw or cooked.  In the nineteenth century oysters were everyday food items that were inexpensive and plentiful. They were the food of the common person.

Newspaper advertisements hint at the massive amounts of oysters available to our ancestors. Consider this 1874 newspaper advertisement from the Oregonian which lists several places to eat and obtain oysters.

Old Vintage Advertisement for Oysters - Oregonian Newspaper  1874

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 16 October 1874, page 5.

Street vendors, oyster houses, saloons, restaurants and home cooks prepared oysters in various, often creative ways. Oysters were served in every way imaginable including ways we are familiar with today like raw and fried. Interesting ways to serve oysters could be found in the era’s cookbooks including pickled oysters, oyster ketchup and one recipe that called for oysters to be served with shortcake.[i]

Consider this newspaper article which provides 11 ways to cook oysters that “if adhered to will bring cheer to the family board.” Note that this article was printed in a Kentucky newspaper—not exactly known today for its seafood. Yet this historical 1913 article tells “how best to serve the succulent bivalve [oysters], perhaps the most universally popular dish of the American table.”

How To Cook Oysters Old Recipe - Lexington Herald Newspaper 1913

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 19 October 1913, section 4, page 3.

There were also “mock oyster” recipes for those who were unable to obtain oysters. These oyster recipes substituted different ingredients for oysters including corn, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. Women could cook dishes such as “Mock Oyster Soup,” “Mock Oyster Sauce,” “Mock Oyster Stew” and just plain “Mock Oysters.” While the appearance of a “mock” recipe in a cookbook might connote that the item was difficult to obtain or expensive, this was not necessarily so in the case of the oyster.

As oyster beds became contaminated and overfished in the early 1900s, oysters began to cease being eaten as an everyday food and became more of a delicacy. No longer was the oyster part of America’s everyday diet.

To learn more about America’s love affair with oysters see the history The Big Oyster. History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky.


[i] Stavely, Keith W. F., and Kathleen‎ Fitzgerald‎. America’s Founding Food. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2004, pg. 108. Viewed on Google Books 1 July 2012.