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By SUSAN SCHOENBERGER
Will Wagner of Hartford grew up on a farm in Wisconsin with a mother who baked her own bread for 10 children.
“She would go through 50 pounds of flour in about 10 days,” he says. “I learned how to bake my own bread from her.”
Wagner, now 71, carefully saved his mother’s recipes and recently found a way to share them with his extended family, friends and beyond. Through the Family Cookbook Project (www.familycookbookproject.com), Wagner and his family created an online database of their family recipes as well as a printed cookbook they sell and give away as gifts. The cookbook has more than 400 recipes from 33 family members, including a French version of dumplings for which his mother Rita was famous. “A lot of them use it,” Wagner says of his mother’s dumpling recipe. “That’s how they think of Grandma.”
The Family Cookbook Project is the brainchild of Bill Rice of Simsbury, who ultimately envisioned just the kind of stories Wagner has to tell about grandchildren, nieces and nephews keeping family traditions alive.
“When families get together, the times you remember most are the times you’re sitting around the table, eating the meal or preparing the meal,” Rice says. “It’s the marrying of these food traditions that really makes things interesting.”
The story of the website’s inception, though, has a few twist and turns.
It all started in 2004; Rice and his extended family were sitting around a table talking about food, as they often did, when someone suggested putting together a family cookbook. With relatives scattered around the country, Rice decided to ask his old friend Chip Lowell, who went to Wethersfield High School with him, to put together a website that would allow his family members to enter their own recipes.
The Proverbial Light Bulb
After Rice and his family produced their cookbook in 2004, they discovered that someone else had found their website online and started using it to produce another family cookbook.
That’s when the refrigerator light bulb went on.
“We thought, ‘Maybe we have something here’,” Rice says.
Rice enlisted Lowell, who lives in Virginia, to come up with the tools to allow families to design and produce their own cookbooks. They also found a cookbook publisher willing to print as many copies as the website’s users wanted to order.
“Personalized cookbooks have been around since the 1940s; however, the process of collecting and organizing recipes always has been a labor-intensive project for the cookbook editor,” Lowell says. “Our site brings this process into the Internet age and now it’s easy and cost-effective to have your very own cookbook printed.”
So far, more than 16,000 cookbook projects have been created, representing more than 58,000 contributors and 330,000 recipes. The site charges a $29.95 annual membership fee, which buys access to its cookbook-creation tools as well as a searchable database of 240,000 of the recipes that contributors have deemed “public.”
Producing a print version of the cookbook costs an average of $10 a book, although the costs go down as the order volume goes up. The average number of recipes is 223, and the average number of books ordered is slightly more than 100.
“We’ve really tried to keep it very simple but very usable,” Rice says.
The website asks one person to sign up as the editor, and it walks that person though the process of contacting contributors, accepting their recipes, reminding them about deadlines, adding photos, designing a cover and editing the final product.
The Stories Behind Recipes
On average, Rice says, it takes families about six months to go from creating an account to the finished project, although some have done it much more quickly. One of the best parts about the process, he says, is the opportunity for contributors to add personal comments to the recipes.
“A recipe is just a recipe, until you say how you found the recipe, when you use it, and the story behind it,” he says.
Wagner’s family cookbook is a case in point. Amid the recipes for Blender Pancakes and his mother’s Pistachio Salad are comments that give the book its unique character.
“This is very rich but so delicious,” says the personal note on a Chicken Enchilada recipe. “You will not regret trying it.”
The Butterfinger Dessert has this note attached: “Made by mistake several years ago, but has been at Wagner Christmas Dinner every year since.”
And the Peanut Butter Temptations are clarified as “the cookies everyone asks me to bring to Ron’s for our Thanksgiving/ Christmas celebration.”
With the Family Cookbook Project’s success came several offshoots, including a site for fundraising cookbook projects (www.cookbookfundraiser.com) that caters to nonprofits, schools and other organizations that want to produce cookbooks. Another project is a book compiling the best recipes on the original website called “The Best of the Family Cookbook Project.”
A Wedding Surprise
What pleases Rice the most, though, are the creative ways that families have chosen to use his website.
One family, for example, put a cookbook together as a surprise for a couple getting married. Members of both sides of the couple’s family compiled treasured family recipes to get them started on their new life together and gave out the books as wedding favors.
Others have compiled cookbooks before or after family· reunions; adding photos and family trees. The project has also produced low-carb, gluten-free and other specialty cookbooks for groups and families that need those recipes.
Wil Wagner’s family ordered 1,500 copies initially, then ordered a second printing of 2 ,500 more. Now they’re thinking about creating Volume 2 because Volume 1 was such a “family spirit-builder.”
“It was definitely a great experience,” Wagner says. “This is such a great way to capture those memories.”
Current Family Cookbook Project update:
In the 2010 article, we had printed 16,000 cookbook projects have been created, representing more than 58,000 contributors and 330,000 recipes. The site charges a $29.95 annual membership fee.
In 2021, we now have helped over 125,000 cookbook projects with more than 286,000 contributors! Our system now holds over 2.1 million recipes and the annual membership fee is still only $29.95!