When it comes to my mom and Christmas (ok, most moms), finding the "perfect" gift is next to impossible. This is especially true with my mom, however, whose birthday—you guessed it!—is December 25th. After 20-plus years of giving her gifts on Christmas, you would think my siblings and I would finally have it figured out—but unfortunately, not the case.
Each year our family tradition is the same: Christmas Eve we all exchange gifts accompanied by an array of hors d'oeuvres, and Christmas Day, Mom gets her birthday gifts and all the pecan pie (because, of course, she hates cake). And each year, she is—though she would never admit it—burdened with the task of waking up at 6 AM on her birthday to ready the feast for the ten or more family members attending Christmas dinner.
Last year, my sister and I finally decided on the perfect gift. What if we made Mom a little less stressed out on her birthday by turning her wrinkled, crumpled, and faded recipes from her 1980s recipe box into an actual cookbook? (To be fair, this was my sister's idea, but the execution was a team effort.) When we went back home for Thanksgiving, we snuck the recipe box up to our childhood rooms and took photos with our phones of each and every one.
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When we got back to New York, we got started. The hardest part was definitely deciphering various handwriting styles; often I would text friends a photo and ask if anyone could read certain words. Other times, we would just make assumptions based on the recipe. My favorite discovery was the presence of 'olio' in almost every recipe from her grandmother, who had been a farmer in North Dakota and mother of ten. We also discovered other fun notes from friends who had written the recipes, and decided to skip out on some of our least favorites, like Watergate Salad, which calls for JELL-O Pistachio Flavor Instant Pudding and marshmallows.
We analyzed. We deciphered. We typed. And we edited.
My favorite discovery was the presence of 'olio' in almost every recipe from her grandmother, who had been a farmer in North Dakota and mother of ten.
Once we had the recipes, it was time for the design. We began with the layout. Since we had far less recipes than a typical cookbook, we started with one recipe every two pages so that each recipe could be juxtaposed with images (we're visual people!). But then, we realized, we aren't Food52—i.e., not professional food photographers like James Ransom or Bobbi Lin—and don’t have any photography skills. So, we did what the internet inspired us to do: We googled, tumbled, and pinned.
Since this cookbook was just for our mom and wasn't ever leaving her kitchen, we used images we found online plus many of our own to create the book—I recommend adding photo credits if you're going to go that route, and (just in case!) asking the photographers if they mind.
But if we had it to do over again, we would definitely have cooked some of the recipes and tried to take more of our own photos. With a farmhouse wood table, a plant or two, and a ton of natural light, a completely DIY cookbook is definitely possible—especially with a bevy of great food and a happy recipient as the reward! After typing up each recipe, juxtaposing them with our favorite images, and laying it all out in Adobe InDesign, we headed over to Artifact Uprising and submitted our work. (For those who aren't comfortable laying out pages with design software, they even have templates you can use.)
For the price of around $70, we had an official, hardcover cookbook that we aptly named ‘Barbara’s Kitchen’ and that our Mom now uses everyday (on her birthday).
Meghan Murray is an assistant buyer for the Food52 Shop (and one of the most artistic people we know!).
Have you ever put together a homespun cookbook as a gift? Tell us in the comments.