Spending time in a kitchen with someone who's been cooking for nearly seven decades is a humbling experience. Forget back pain from sitting at a desk for too long: My grandmother (who I call nonna), with her arthritic fingers, still makes gnocchi from scratch. She grates enough parmesan and mozzarella daily to feed a small village and refuses to buy store-bought breadcrumbs, preferring to make her own out of day-old loaves of bread.
For the last year, my wife and I have been making periodic trips to the small Southwestern Ontario hamlet of Beachville, where my nonna lives, with the goal of preserving her recipes in a cookbook. My mother grew up there as the eldest of five children: Her parents, like many of the town's denizens, were immigrants from Italy's northern Treviso province. In the early 1950s, when my grandparents made the long boat trip over to Canada, they brought little with them apart from my grandmother's recipes.
Food played an important role in my mother's upbringing. The dinner table, an oversized fixture in a modest kitchen, was a gathering spot for casual weeknight meals, holiday dinners and seemingly endless gossip sessions. The food – hearty Italian classics – never changed. But as my mother and her siblings got older, they moved away from home and committed the cardinal sin of marrying outside of their ethnicity.
They never learned their mother's recipes.
My nonna still spends the majority of her days cooking, slowly simmering batches of meat sauce to be frozen and distributed to her 15 grandkids or layering pans of lasagna for quick weeknight meals for her daughters.
Her cooking does more than just provide sustenance – it brings together a family, and offers us a taste of a shared cultural heritage. Sadly, though, she and her food won't be around forever: She's already 86 and my nonno, or grandfather, died years ago.
The drive to document an older generation's recipes and pass them down to those younger than us is probably as old as cooking itself. But thanks to the growing popularity of self-publishing and the emergence of businesses that cater specifically to family-cookbook creation, the process has never been easier. One such company is the Toronto-based Heritage Cookbook, run by Virginie and Laurence Martocq, which was started in 2004 with the humble goal of helping families trace their lineage through food.
The site offers a range of templates and bindings, as well as a variety of tips to help make the process run smoothly. Virginie Martocq recommends creating a computer folder to keep everything organized, printing out a style sheet to remain consistent (for example, will it be "tablespoon" or "tbsp"?) and factoring in time for collecting, sorting and testing recipes and proofreading the final result.
"Creating a cookbook is a big process, but it's a nostalgic process," Martocq says. "People are going through old photos and looking for moments that were special to the family."
In the past 12 years, Heritage Cookbook has sold nearly 200,000 books. Italians, Portuguese, Pennsylvania Dutch, Hawaiians and Mexicans are its key customers. The company caters to three distinct groups: food professionals (bloggers, caterers, B&B owners), community-based fundraisers and people making personal cookbooks. Karen Chiasson from Edmonton fits into the latter group.
Chiasson and her family spent many years living overseas due to her husband's job. During one of their moves, her mother-in-law's handwritten cookbook was lost. Last year, intent on creating a new family heirloom for her now-grown children, Chiasson put together a book of her mother-in-law's lost recipes (the ones she knew by heart) as well as dishes the family grew to love while living in Turkey, Thailand and Singapore. "For years, I've accumulated recipes, keeping them in binders or on my computer," Chiasson says. "Now there are probably around 200 recipes in the book."
Martocq says many Heritage Cookbook users have been building a cache of recipes for years and then, once they've made up their minds to tackle the project, the book comes together fairly quickly. For others, the process may be more involved.
It certainly was for me, since not only did I have to visit my nonna and painstakingly learn her recipes, but I used a program intended for creating photo books, not cookbooks, which required some fiddling and finagling.
The first recipe my wife and I tackled with my nonna was her meat sauce, built from nearly two-dozen ingredients and simmered for more than three hours. It was the base for many of the other dishes – such as the lasagna, gnocchi and risotto – we mastered on subsequent visits. We also learned her chicken parmigiana, her caponata-like slow-cooked eggplant and peppers, her three-meat involtini and nearly a dozen others.
My nonna thinks that exact measurements are overrated, leading me to ask repeatedly that she slow down and clearly measure things out for documentation. She also taught me that ancient kitchen tools can do just about anything modern ones can, that inexpensive ingredients can benefit from hours of cooking and that my predilections for maintaining a sanitary kitchen are somewhat precious.
To anyone interested in creating an heirloom cookbook of their own, a few words of advice. Have a pen and paper on hand at all times to capture the intricacies of crafting each dish as you cook. Keep a camera at the ready, because it's not only pictures of the final dish that are important – step-by-step technique shots are useful, too. I also wanted to show my nonna in her well-lived-in kitchen. Most important, don't rush: In total, the book took about a full year to complete, the last month of which was spent double-checking recipes, gathering old photos and designing the final product. It was worth the time.
So far, I've given 28 copies of the hardcover cookbook to members of our extended family, with a second order yet to be distributed. The book itself is called Abbondate (the Italian word for "abundance") and its pages are packed with old photos of my family at birthday parties and get-togethers, plus shots of my nonna's still-formidable garden. And, of course, the recipes.
Nonna herself, a notoriously tough critic, loves the finished product, showing it off to anyone who visits her (though she's bashfully tried to claim I've given her too much credit). The gift has been welcomed with broad smiles, its receivers eager to learn the secrets behind the lovingly crafted food they've enjoyed all of their lives.