While the term “ambiguous loss” was coined by Pauline Boss in the 1970s, the phenomenon feels ever-present today. So many of us are suffering from the physical absence of loved ones and activities that typically fill our lives with connection. In missing the things that help us feel present, we feel untethered. Making a family cookbook, a collection of recipes by and for loved ones, is one way to combat this feeling. It’s a sure way to feel connected and purposeful.
Anyone anywhere can make a family cookbook for very little, if any, money, whether you’re an adult feeling far away from those you love and you’re looking for some glue, or you’re a young person at home when you would typically be involved in an after-school program or other extracurricular activity. Here’s how to do it:
– Make a list of “family.” The most important step is to remember that “family” is yours to define. It could be your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, or it could be your friends from school, or it could be a mix of peers and elders in your community.
– Decide your format. Family cookbooks can be printed or digital; they can also be a series of videos, almost a documentary of family recipes. You could narrate recipes and record others doing the same and make a family cookbook podcast or think of it as an album, each recipe a song.
For printed versions, you can go as analog as handwritten recipes and stories, and maybe even some illustrations, on paper that you photocopy for family members and then bind (staples, paper clips and binder clips all count, as does spiral-binding or other finishing that’s available at most copy centers). This is how I made my own family cookbook, right when I was out of college and was lining up my first real job working on a published cookbook. There are a handful of “Turshen Family Cookbooks” in existence, and when I look back at my own copy now, I’m delighted to have all of my family recipes in one place in a way that feels homemade, just like the food I most like to cook.
– Consider images. You could add black-and-white illustrated outlines of things and make it a family cookbook/coloring book. You could do color copies and include photographs. For a more polished, less handmade printed version, you can do a quick Internet search for one of the myriad templates and services available for you to fill in the blanks, and they will do the printing and binding. The same range is available for digital cookbooks. It can be as simple as a Word document or as detailed as each field filled in a premade template.
– Pick an organizing principle—or not. Is it just a collection of favorite recipes? That totally works. You can also use a flexible outline that will allow you to get more specific while also maintaining some openness. For example, will you want your cookbook to include such categories as breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes? Or soups, salads, main courses, side dishes, dessert and drinks? Maybe you’d like to organize it seasonally.
If you’re not sure, that’s OK. You can just gather a bunch of recipes and then see if a natural outline emerges. Or take a look at your favorite cookbooks and study how their chapters are organized. There’s no right way of doing this, but it is helpful to have organization in mind when you start gathering recipes. This will inform whether you’re asking for specific recipes or just gathering whatever comes your way.
You can also think outside of the box. For example, all the recipes can be responses to one or more questions such as “what do you most want to eat on your birthday?” or “what is your favorite holiday dish?” or “what recipe are you most known for?”
– Start gathering. As with any group project, it’s helpful to reach out to the people on your list with direct communication and clear expectations. This can be as formal or as informal as you like, but in your reaching out, explain what you’re making, who else you’re reaching out to, what exactly you’re asking for, when you’d like it by and how you’ll be sharing it when it’s all set. When it comes to the ask itself, refer to the format you’ve decided on and ask accordingly.
Be specific about how you’d like to receive the material. You can ask your contributors to write a recipe for you, or set up a time for you to interview them on the phone about how they make their recipe, or you can request people take a video of themselves making the dish and then you can write down the steps. In addition to the recipes, also collect the stories behind them. Ask people why they chose that specific recipe and/or if it brings up any memories.
– Decide how much recipe consistency you want. The recipes you gather will likely come to you in a mix of styles. You can choose to keep the mix, or put all of the recipes in a uniform style. Traditionally this means a list of ingredients in the order they’re called for in the recipe, plus really clear steps for how to make the dish.
One of the greatest things about a family cookbook is that you can choose whatever conventions you like and dismiss whichever ones you don’t. Some people have grandmothers like mine who keep recipes on notecards with specific measurements and refer to them each time they make something. Others have relatives and friends who cook by feel and intuition. There’s room for all of us, and whether your family cookbook contains precise measurements or descriptive prose that just describes how a dish is made, it’s all valuable.
– Start putting it together. Take these recipes, the stories behind them and any artwork you want to include and lay them out page-by-page. This can be on literal pieces of paper and you can cut things out with scissors and paste them, or you can do all of that with corresponding keyboard clicks. Whatever shape your cookbook takes, it’s the collection of items that makes the sum such a celebration of its parts.
– Share the cookbook. Send copies to everyone involved. Bring the book to life by doing an in-person potluck if it’s safe to do so (i.e. outdoors with social distance) or through a virtual potluck where everyone cooks a recipe from the cookbook and then you gather online to talk about what you’re eating and how it felt to cook it. Just as making it can help you feel connected, so can cooking from it.
Julia Turshen is the author of several cookbooks, including “Now and Again: Go-To Recipes, Inspired Menus + Endless Ideas for Reinventing Leftovers” (Chronicle, 2018).