4 Steps to making a Heirloom Family Cookbook

August 5, 2022
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Leanne Russell

My brother and his wife left for a holiday and in handing over the contents of his fridge, I noticed a container with some food leftovers. “What’s this?” I asked. “Tuna casserole - you, know - like Mum used to make,” he replied. And I knew exactly what he was referring to.

I have fond memories of this particular dish. It’s not fancy, complicated or time consuming to make (just how cooking should be, in my mind!). When I moved out of home for the first time into a flat with my bestie when I was still at Uni, it was one of the few dishes in my cooking repertoire. It was cheap and easy and made a lot. Which was great when you had heaps of people around. It was a staple dinner in the flat and as a result of its regularity, became affectionately known as TFC - “tuna f..k..g casserole”.

It was one of the regular dishes I cooked as a single parent with a hungry teenage son. There was supposed to be enough food to feed four, but we rarely had any left for the following evening. It was also one of the first recipes he learnt to cook. I looked forward to coming home after work on those days he prepared dinner for us both.

Like other memories, stories and images, family recipes should be preserved, to help continue the legacy and the food memories and stories that go with them. Celebrate the family recipes that may have been passed down through generations.

Here are four steps to bring those recipes, the food, the people and stories behind them, to life.


First decide how you want to keep your recipes. It’s all very well having the authentic grease stained recipes stashed in a drawer somewhere, but it’s not very practical if you want them to last or gift them to multiple offspring.

Digitising recipes and collating them in a book is a great way to preserve them. There are a lot of options for printing. From simple printing businesses where you can create a single “photo book” to more professional book printing companies and everything in between to meet everyone’s budget.


Ask your relatives, grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, for any family recipes they have lying around. Some may be in cupboards, card boxes or on handwritten pieces of paper stuck between the pages of a book. My mother-in-law wrote recipes into an exercise book. Most importantly, get those recipes that are in their heads down on paper. You don’t want them lost forever!

Make a list and ask the family what should be included. Some of those choices may come down to the memory associated with the dish. But there may be some you hadn’t thought of.


Photos and images have a way of evoking emotions along with the memories. I have a fabulous photo of my boy making ‘mud-pies’ in the yard. The sheer joy, pleasure and fun he is having, is the perfect image to go with my recipe for chocolate brownies. They are a decadent pleasure to eat.

With the ability now to snap pics whenever we want on our phones, we can capture so many memories in an instant. Gather as many food related pictures, photos and images you can find. Make sure that you have images of the people, and the dish to make the memories come alive. Perhaps you can take pictures while cooking the recipe, with the person who is known for it - if you are lucky enough for them to still be around. Take shots of the process along the way, of the faces, even the pots and pans. Having digitised photos and images will help you, when you put your food heirloom together.


Stories help bring the recipes to life. The secret sauce is in the details. For the traditional feasts or regular family faves, write about the memories associated with them. Be specific. Include details about the utensils or special pots that were used, the special apron that Grandma only worn on that occasion. Even the sayings, the smells, the colours and textures of the food, the surroundings, the people will add to the food memory.

Perhaps host a family get together and reminisce. Make note or record the memories. Have some prompts to help the conversation. Like - were there any foods you disliked but were forced to eat? Did you have any comfort foods growing up that hold a special place in your heart? Were there any regular day of the week meals, like Friday night Chinese take out? What were some of your funniest/earliest/worse food memories?

Catching Prawns in the River

We used to go prawning with my grandparents in the river during the summer. Dad and Grandad, and sometimes me, dragging the net up and back and up and back, through the cold water in the dark, while the others sat on the sand ready with buckets lit by hurricane lamps. We would bring the net onshore and then all 6 of us would suit up with gloves (so we didn’t get pricked by their head spikes) and pick through the weeds and rubbish in the net to find the prawns and drop them into the buckets. If they were too small, we threw them back into the water.

Once we had enough for a decent feed, we would head back to my grandparents’ house. Grandma would put her enormous cast iron pot on the stove and boil the water. We would cover the kitchen table in newspaper, and Dad would make up the reddy pink ‘cocktail sauce’ and place small bowls of it in the middle of the table. There was the smell of briny water, the tomatoey tang of the seafood sauce with the sharp bite of lemon and beer. There was always lots of noise, talking, laughter. Easy teasing between my Dad and his mother-in-law.

On one occasion, my brother decided to chase me, the older sister, around the kitchen with a prawn, who had miraculously jumped and somehow missed the boiling pot of death, claiming in a little squeaky voice that he was ‘going to get me’ for trying to eat him. The live prawn show freaked me out so much, I didn’t eat prawns for years after that.

Now, my Dad and grandparents are gone and prawning in the river is a thing of the past, but this memory and the fun we had, is clear in my mind whenever I eat cooked prawns or have a prawn cocktail as an entree. I’d like that story to be part of our family’s food legacy gift for my grandson.