Web sites replacing the family recipe box

Food: Online collections help preserve and spread the taste of home cooking.

April 30, 2001|By Kimberly Stevens | Kimberly Stevens,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

June Meyer figures quite a few people have tried her family's goulash recipe. With 320,000 visitors to her Authentic Hungarian Heirloom Recipes Home Page, she thinks her sticky chicken, little dumplings and Hungarian apple cake have a following, too.

"If I don't do anything else in this lifetime, at least I know I've helped a lot of people reconnect with old recipes and traditions," said Meyer, a 66-year-old resident of Deerfield, Ill.

She is not alone. The Web is increasingly replacing the printed page as a medium for compiling family cookbooks and passing recipes along to new generations. Sometimes strangers are in the audience, too, as Web users coming upon Aunt Lassie's golden brownie recipe or Grandma Mary's spaghetti sauce get a peek into the traditions and cookery of other families' kitchens.

Sandra Oliver, editor and publisher of Food History News, a quarterly journal, said family cookbooks had been around for centuries, with recipes added from generation to generation. "It wasn't self-conscious preservation," she said. "It was simply a way of life."

Now the Web is offering a new medium for such collections. "It is a powerful tool in the effort to preserve," Oliver said, "but there has to be someone in the family willing to take the time to document and put it up on the Web."

According to Gary Hauser, owner of Food for Thought Software, a maker of recipe programs, there are many people willing to take the time. His software, "Now You're Cooking," is a top seller among the many titles catering to recipe collectors. "There are a lot of proud cooks out there," he said.

Unlike printed cookbooks, Web sites enable cooks and their audiences to exchange comments and build on one another's recipes and lore. For Meyer and her Hungarian heirloom recipes ("all original - no cans of Campbell's soup in my food"), the biggest surprise was that her Web site (homepage.interaccess.com/~june4) attracted a following. After her son helped her create the site three years ago, strangers apparently found it through word of mouth or search engines.

"I couldn't understand why anyone other than my own family would be interested in this," said Meyer, whose ancestors and in-laws came from Hungary and Transylvania, now part of Romania. "But you begin to realize it's not always about the recipe. It's about feeling connected." She has also published a small cookbook, which is in its third printing and is being sold through her site.

Letters and e-mail messages pour in from around the world. With nearly one hundred recipes on the site, she constantly fields questions about her family origins and responds to messages letting her know that her recipes have helped salvage part of a family's lost heritage.

"I thought my father's recipes died when he did," one person said. Another told her: "Mom died last year and I was looking for the creamed zucchini recipe. I could not remember how she made it. Thank you so much. So many of my mom's recipes are on your site."

Some sites offer bits of family color and a hints of intrigue. On the Thaemlitz family site (www.comatonse.com/listening/recipes.html), a recipe for Grandma Mary's "That's Italian" Jewish Ghetto Spaghetti Sauce comes with this anecdote: "I vividly recall the catfighting between Ma and Mary as Ma tried to take measurements while Mary made the sauce without ever measuring ingredients."

The site is maintained by Terre Thaemlitz, a 32-year-old disc jockey and alternative-music producer, who decided that he would get some of "the key family dishes" online for his brother and sister before his recent move to Japan.

"Relatives who are online have said one thing or another, usually contesting an ingredient and suggesting changes," he said. "I've had to do some late-night rewriting of Ma's recipes when she finally got a chance to look the page over."

For some, the main motivation for posting recipes on the Web is convenience. Ed Ford, 56, who works at First Union National Bank in Charlotte, N.C., said his recipe Web site (www.geocities. com/ed_ford_99/cookbook/cb-cov- er.html) had grown out of housekeeping.

"I was tired of all those recipes on scraps of paper stuffed in a drawer," he said. "My wife knew where everything was, but I couldn't find anything." So he put them on a Web site for easy reference, not only for himself but also for his two sons and their wives.

Kilty Spoke, a 44-year-old school secretary in Buchanan, Mich., put her family recipe collection on the Web (www.qtm.net/~zookeeper/recipes) so she could access it while traveling. Her daughter, Gina, who has her first off-campus apartment at Purdue University, often calls to ask her to add particular family favorites to the site and has begun to add recipes of her own.

"If my daughter's feeling homesick and wants to make a comforting family recipe," Spoke said, "she can seize that Betty Crocker moment and have our recipes in a flash. It really is comforting."

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