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Forget Splattered Recipe Cards

Today, preservation of family favorites is digital

Though past generations recorded family recipes mostly with ink on paper, the heirs to those recipes increasingly use 21st-century technology to preserve them.

Holly Gillcash never really knew her mother Judy's mother, Ruth Otis, but loved the stories told about her maternal grandmother: a trailblazer born at the turn of the 20th century who worked in New England mills in her teens and during World War II was a driver transporting wounded soldiers. When Judy died in 1996, Holly, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., inherited generations of family photo albums and papers, including Judy's and Ruth's recipe collections.

Holly regularly bakes banana bread from a recipe that her mother used so often that food spatters cover its page in Cooking Down East, a 1950s-Maine classic cookbook. From Ruth, Holly treasures a yellowed, ruled-paper notebook with recipes in her grandmother's tidy handwriting (including the exclamation "Good!" next to her favorites). After the pages of recipes, Ruth rounded out the notebook with several pages of family genealogy notes: births, marriages, deaths noted and dated. Knowing that the paper pages won't last forever, Holly has painstakingly made digital scans of them and stored them in a computer hard drive.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Teri Clark used an online tool to compile the historic recipes of two families about to become one.

As Teri's daughter, Kelsie Clark, prepared for her May 2011 wedding to Air Force officer Brad Oatmen, the couple faced the prospect of missing many family feasts during Brad's six-year enlistment. Teri knew Kelsie would miss the Surprise Pancake that Teri bakes for the family every Valentine's Day and the Overnight Rolls that are a Christmas morning tradition. And because Kelsie is what Teri gently calls "an undeveloped cook," she knew the couple would need help to make the family-favorite dishes of both clans.

So Teri joined forces with Brad's mother, Lori Oatmen, a longtime friend who is also an avid cook. "We sent out an email to the women from both families requesting their favorite recipes, especially those that were part of family traditions," says Teri. They ended up with 100 recipes from four generations of the two extended families, including a coffee cake recipe Teri's great-grandmother, Beatrice Elff, brought to the United States when she emigrated from England as a girl.

At an online book publishing site called Blurb.com, Teri used templates and tutorials to assemble the family recipes into a 50-page book. "Once I got the hang of the software, it went pretty quickly," she says. Four days after she uploaded her recipe pages to the company, she received the completed, hardbound volume. Teri spent a lot of time and energy on the project but only about $37, she says – well worth it, considering how touched Kelsie was when she unwrapped the cookbook at her wedding shower.

Teri's next project is to re-edit the digital recipe files to make cookbooks for other relatives in her family. She loves feeling that she is giving them not just their ancestors' recipes but "a record of history."

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