Kitchen Wisdom: How to Preserve Old Family Recipes

by Beth Graham

I recently read an article in Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Journal, “Nurtured for Generations,” about the legacies of grandmothers who cooked, and the home chefs – and the family food culture – they spawned. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I grew up in one of these families, and recently lost my mother who held so many recipes, cooking tips, and family food memories. I fear that so many of those treasures are lost forever. So it had me thinking about how to preserve old family recipes.

Be sure to preserve old family recipes.

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while now as a cautionary tale to others. Those treasures were lost several years before my mother’s death due to her aphasia – a loss of the ability to comprehend or form language. It’s been in the news a lot lately with Bruce Willis’s diagnosis. It’s a horrible condition – in my mom’s case, her aphasia was caused by a brain aneurysm. She did not lose her memory, just her ability to communicate. Within weeks of her illness, I found myself wanting to ask her so many questions about recipes – exactly how much Crisco did she use in her dumplings for my dad’s favorite chicken n’ dumplings? Where is the recipe for her famous Jewish Apple Cake? How did she make that sauce for my favorite chicken cordon bleu? I could ask. But she could not respond. 

My mother was truly the quintessential home cook. She was a home maker in the truest sense. Meats and threes every single night. In later years as we began helping her downsize, I would find decades of old Southern Living magazines stashed under the ottoman, in nightstands, under kitchen cabinets, and any where else she could use for out-of-the-way storage. My cousins and I to this day reminisce over how every time the families convened, it was always in the kitchen. And the topic of conversation and the activity was always about food. And family. 

I have all of her old recipe cards and a cookbook of hand-written recipes she made for me when I got married. But the nuances, along with the memories, are gone forever. There was a big joke in my family for decades that my brothers and I would often call her up to ask, “How long does (this) keep in the refrigerator?”  She would often answer the phone with, “What cooking question do you have for me today?” She was our library of culinary information.

It’s funny because it wasn’t long before her illness that I started getting those same phone calls from my own kids. How long do I cook this for? How much of that do I add to the pan?

I know a lot of people whose childhoods were spent in the kitchen, whether it was helping grandma cook a holiday dinner or standing around a card table with paper plates for a Sunday family barbecue that included all of the cousins. And I know I’m not the only one who has a little box filled with recipes cards, written by more than a dozen hands of friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors. (The demise of the hand-written recipe card – how sad!) But it’s what is NOT written down that I missed the most. We all need to be thinking about how to preserve old family recipes.

Oh how I wished I had asked more questions when my mother could still speak. She held not only her own kitchen wisdom, but all of that of my two grandmothers.

For my friends who can still gather in the kitchen with a mother or grandmother (or in today’s PC world, perhaps it’s over the grill with dad or grandpa), be sure you ask those questions and document those memories.

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Maxine June 14, 2022 - 11:30 am

Beth, I too, have my Mom’s recipe box that I requested. Handwritten and typed by her and my grandmother. Whether or not I ever make those recipes, I treasure looking at them. Looking at the handwriting. Your sentiments are spot on and resonate with so many. Never did we think history would continue to repeat itself (for you, your kids). Pass it on. Keep it going. And your mom’s pecan pie was divine. ❤️

Caroline Longanecker June 14, 2022 - 2:32 pm


Boy, this hit me hard. To this day, my brother, sister and I struggle to figure out my mother’s secret recipe for spaghetti sauce. I kick myself for not asking her be fore she passed away. My poor dad is no help, he said she always kicked him out of the kitchen when she made it. Oh how I wish I was a fly on the wall when she created her masterpiece.

Today, I cherish her handwritten recipe cards and trace the outline of her writing with my finger. I keep thinking if I do that, I will somehow be enlightened!

Thanks for sharing your wonderful stories

Georgeann June 15, 2022 - 5:17 pm

We tried very hard to get my grandmother’s recipes written down so we all could make them even after she was gone. But when we asked how much salt? or when do you add more flour? Her answers were like this: “Just until it tastes right.” Or “You will know when its time” Maybe you would have be able to get more specifics from your mom – but so much of the old recipes were just done from instinct and taste. I think you have or will develop that same ability.

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