May 5, 2013

How to Make a Family Cookbook

I have been super excited about this project since I first stumbled across the family-cookbook-for-a-wedding favor idea on the Kitchn. Brilliance. I couldn't wait to get married just so I could make a cookbook (I just needed to find a boyfriend first: true story), but then my aunt suggested the same family cookbook idea as a bridesmaid luncheon favor for my cousin, who actually had a fiance and upcoming wedding date.

So a life theme continued: idea for project of selfish ambition turns into a way to gift someone else with something beautiful and meaningful (and when you're in your 20s, that generally means it's for a bride).

Thus began the process of churning a family food legacy into words, and words into pages, and pages into a volume to share. It was a lot of work, not gonna lie, but I am super nerdy and like editing projects in my spare time when they are special to my heart.

I also studied how the Southern Living food department edits recipes for my master's project and was happy to use what I learned from them on a bigger scale than a blog post or newspaper recipe here or there.
The goods: Marked-up cookbook copy draft, my grandmother's handwritten recipes, family photos.
After staring at the finished project for hours on end, I got to release it to the family wedding weekend. Everyone, even the guys, articulated how special it is to have our family captured in the book. The bride flipped through and would stop and read parts aloud to her friends, and then was telling me down the table of 24 how our kids and grandkids are going to cook out of this.
Here's the text for the book intro:
There comes a time in a young Markham’s life when you realize most families do not cook filet mignon for 20 people. Others might throw burgers or chicken breasts on the grill and actually enjoy them. But when Markhams gather, we have at least four men hovered around a Green Egg to monitor medium rare steak perfection, christened with cigar smoke.

We Markham children grew up with the assumption that any family gathering must begin with buffalo chicken dip, artichoke dip, black bean dip or hummus, lest we go hungry with just a filet and sides and desserts. And isn’t it normal to drink Cabernet from a winery with your last name?
Back cover art: Pictorial family tree!
And so, as we send off Laura to take on a new not-Markham name (a first in our family of many men!) and welcome Oscar to our crazy clan, we commemorate the occasion with a collection of our favorites from the kitchen, to go with whatever the men— #s 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, or their sons —pull off the grill and stir up in a glass (most likely Stolies).

But first, a few credits: Wendy in her creative brilliance had a revelation that we should make a recipe book for Laura’s bridesmaid luncheon. Papa Bills is to credit for the book title because, after all, everything is relative. And Granny not just fed but graciously raised five boys to value the art of a good meal shared with good company—a legacy we all see come to life at our tables week in and week out.

In the words of Chris Markham in our not-religious tradition, Mazel Tov! May you eat well together for many years to come.

Steps/Tips to Make a Really Awesome Family Cookbook

1. Make a plan for recipe gathering. Who are you going to ask for recipes? What kind of recipes are you asking for? What is your final deadline to send to print (wedding dates are good accountability!)? What is your deadline for people to send recipes to you (set it super far in advance; people will be late)? I emailed each of my aunts and my grandmother and asked each to send one appetizer, one main dish, one side dish and one dessert, plus anything else they wanted, and gave them a deadline. And then I reminded them several times, and for some set a second deadline after the first one.

2. Ask for recipe descriptions. Little anecdotes about where a recipe came from or even just whose favorite dish it is make a book that much more meaningful. I was surprised how much some people enjoyed writing this part.

3. Compile recipes by category. Be prepared for this to take way longer than you think. I pasted a bunch of recipes into a Word document, separated by a header for each category, and typed out all the handwritten/uncopy-and-pasteable ones.

4. Edit for consistency. I have anal editor syndrome, so I wanted all the measurement abbreviations the same, all references to all-purpose flour to have a hyphen, all ways I referenced an oven temperature the same, and many other stylistic things. Apply this to the extent you see fit. This process can also take forever and ever. Make sure all the ingredient lists match up to the instructions and if you want to be particular, that the ingredients are used in order of how they are listed.

5. Edit for spelling and grammar. I farmed out a printed copy to my mom to edit (thanks, Mom) and then did a round of edits behind her. I made all the changes and got it as perfect as I could in Word.

6. Decide how you want to publish it. I went with Blurb because I ooed and ahhed at how pretty and professional looking their examples were, and I ended up being impressed, actually super very much wowed, with how the process worked. They have templates you can use online that seem to work well, but I did it using their InDesign plug-in because I wanted full design control and luckily had a copy of Adobe Creative Suite.

(6A. Don't let it die. Around this part in the process, it's really easy to just not get  around to finishing things. I took a BIG break and didn't get back to it until my deadline, the bridesmaid luncheon date, was getting seriously close. Push through and get 'er done! You'll be glad you did in the end, and so will your family. Recruit a family member to ask you about your progress for accountability if needed.)

7. Think out your layout and plan accordingly. What nonrecipe pages do you want? I had an introduction page, a table of contents, an index in the back and a divider page for each section. I used a family photo for each section page and scans of handwritten recipes on my intro page. Tally your recipe counts and sketch out an outline of what your pages will be to help you determine how many pages you will have.

8. Design the recipe pages. Play with one page to get it how you want it and then make all the pages look like it. It might be easier to design these after the cover so you can carry your fonts and design through the book. My recipe pages were pretty simple though, so I just used the serif font I chose for the cover and nonrecipe pages afterward. Once you have your layout template ready, cut and paste, baby!

9. Design the cover. Have fun! I stayed up way late the night I started designing my cover. And then I got feedback and made final tweaks. I went with a simple typography cover that used a handwritten-looking font, since my grandmother loves tangible, handwritten recipes. According to my mother, it looked nostalgic. I also wanted a look that felt more masculine since my dad is one of five boys (lots of testosterone!), so I went with dark colors. On the back cover I made a simple pictorial family tree, which I think is quite beautiful.

10. Create the inside nonrecipes pages. I used design themes and fonts from the cover on the intro, contents, divider and index pages,  so I was glad I designed them after the cover.

10. Proof on-page. I reread everything myself and then farmed out another copy to my mom. Number one rule of copy editing is getting multiple sets of eyes on a project!

11. Decide how many copies you need. I got enough for each grandparent set, aunt/uncle set and cousin (some cousins for their parents to keep for later in life), and then copies for each bridesmaid luncheon guest (we used it as our luncheon favor).

12. Ship it off to print! And then stare at it over and over again, first digitally and then at long last in wonderful, tangible print.

Final note: Blurb enables you to order books at any time, or for others to do so. It feels fancy having a book "for sale." Here's mine.

Long life the art of book creating!


  1. What a neat idea, Madoline. Good for you!

  2. Thanks so much for all the wonderful work and precious time you put into this book!!! I hope you know how appreciated it is. :)


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