The internet is making paper recipes obsolete, but many modern cooks see the cards as tangible mementos of favorite foods and the beloved cooks who made them over and over again.
When cooking for family gatherings, Penny Pierce usually pulls out a yellowed card with frayed edges to scrutinize the fading recipe for her favorite pie crust.
Ms. Pierce, a retired administrative assistant in Adams, N.Y., says her mother typed the card for her 36 years ago, passing along the recipe that she had learned from her mother, Ms. Pierce’s grandmother. About 20 years ago, Ms. Pierce’s now-deceased golden retriever bit off the bottom corner of the card, adding a cherished reminder of his playful nature.
“This card reminds me of him, my mother, my grandmother and all the pies my family has made for every holiday,” she says. “It’s one little piece of paper but it brings back all of that.”
As more cooks turn to the internet to find and save recipes, the generations-old tradition of using paper recipe cards is disappearing. Online recipes can be found instantly for any ingredient, occasion and craving, and saved forever in convenient, always-available digital files. “It’s an easy way to look up a million recipes and the pictures are right there,” says Sarah Pelletier, a crafter in Wolfeboro, N.H., who organizes her digital recipes on two Pinterest boards—one devoted to desserts, and the other to main courses and side dishes.
Still, many modern cooks see their elders’ handwritten, time-tested recipes as family heirlooms, offering tangible mementos of favorite foods and the beloved cooks who made them over and over again. Ms. Pelletier has kept a box of written recipes since her 2011 bridal shower, when her mother asked guests to write their favorites on cards. “These are tried and true recipes, so I know they will work,” she says.
At EverPresent Inc., a company that digitizes family memories, sales of keepsake cookbooks—custom-made, bound books that include photos of recipe cards, smudges and all—have grown over the last year from less than 1% of EverPresent’s photo book revenue to about 20% to 30%, says Eric Niloff, the company’s chief executive. Many customers opt for keepsake cookbooks with pages that are stain-proof and waterproof.
Lois Wood Russo of Bourne, Mass., surprised her three adult sons this Christmas with 100-page cookbooks that preserved her mother’s recipe cards. Dating to the 1950s, they include recipes written in letters her mother wrote to Ms. Russo, favorites from family friends and magazine recipes clipped decades ago. “My sons said, ‘We can give these to our kids one day,’ ” says Ms. Russo. “When the cards are in their boxes, you don’t really look at them, but when they’re spread out across pages, you just want to keep looking.”
Ms. Russo enjoys remembering recipes from her childhood, like Jiffy Scallop Casserole, and seeing her mother’s personality reflected in her graceful handwriting and precise typing. “The typed recipes are amazing to me—that she would be that fastidious about it, to type them rather than writing them,” says Ms. Russo. “It shows such care.”
Preserving the cards is a delicate process that families, curators and archivists all contend with—splatters and all. Recipe cards are often made of low-quality paper and already have spent years in one of the least forgiving rooms of the home: the kitchen, near the oven and in the firing line of spills, drips and smudges.
Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, a preservation expert who is a retired chief of the conservation labs of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, keeps the recipe cards she inherited from her mother in a closet to avoid heat, moisture and sunlight. “Unsuitable environmental conditions increase the rate of deterioration,” she says. She keeps the cards in paper file folders.
Ms. Ritzenthaler advises against laminating precious cards. “It could actually cause more damage over time,” she says. Often recipes clipped from newspapers are favorite parts of recipe collections—those should be kept unfolded and handled carefully as the old newsprint can be brittle. She separates newspaper clippings from other cards because acid migration from the newsprint can stain surrounding materials.
Old food splatters should be left intact for both preservation and aesthetic purposes, Ms. Ritzenthaler says. “It shows that people over the years used and loved those recipes,” she says. “It adds a patina.”
The wear and tear on recipe cards is often as nostalgic to owners as the actual recipes, says Vanessa Boucher, marketing director for EverPresent. To make keepsake cookbooks, designers organize and technicians digitize clients’ recipe-card stacks, often adjusting the contrast to bring out faded handwriting. Micro-thin spatulas and cold temperatures help technicians delicately pry apart recipe cards that might be stuck together with old food residue, the company says.
Ken Gloss, owner of Brattle Book Shop in Boston, says the value of old cookbooks is on the rise as more collectors show interest and old editions become rarer. Cookbooks published in the U.S. in the late 1700s may sell for tens of thousands of dollars, while more common 19th century cookbooks can go for less than $100. Some collectors are drawn to recipe cards and cookbooks with notes and splatters on the pages, feeling a connection with the previous cook who used them. “A lot of this nowadays might be harder to find 100 years from now,” says Mr. Gloss. “You don’t preserve digital recipes the same way.”
Splatters can reduce the value of a rare cookbook, but it can also make it more interesting, Mr. Gloss says. “It adds authenticity and literally you can tell which recipes whoever owned this book before was using over and over again,” he says.
The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is digitizing its collection of more than 100 handwritten or handmade cookbooks from the 18th through the 20th centuries, a process that includes determining how much of the food encrustation conservators should remove without losing the character and clues such debris offers. “We take away the loose material but leave the stain,” says Marylène Altieri, the library’s curator of books and printed materials. “This is emblematic of the relationship of books and cooking—normally you treat a book with great care, but when you’re in the kitchen you can’t do that always.”
Splatters offer important clues about how Julia Child used her cookbooks, says Paula Johnson, the food history curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which includes Ms. Child’s kitchen. Ms. Child kept two 1975 editions of the “Joy of Cooking” on her kitchen’s bookshelves. One is nearly pristine and inscribed to Julia by Marion Rombauer Becker, its co-author and daughter of Irma S. Rombauer, who wrote the original “Joy of Cooking.” The other has a worn binding, many notes along the margins and heavy stains on certain recipes, including German pancakes, suggesting which dishes Ms. Child may have prepared often.
To preserve the 15 cookbooks Ms. Child kept on her kitchen shelves, Ms. Johnson checks them regularly for deterioration and pests. Ms. Johnson monitors the books for traces of powder or residue, which could be evidence of degradation. “These are books, but it’s also this evidence of a life,” says Ms. Johnson.
For Ms. Pelletier, the New Hampshire crafter, the lack of splatters on the recipe cards she inherited when her 100-year-old great aunt Stefie Dlugosz passed away last year serves as an endearing reminder of her brilliance in the kitchen. “To be honest they are all pretty clean—definitely yellowed and old but pretty clean,” says Ms. Pelletier. “I think she referred to them for inspiration, but she liked to cook from her heart.”
Penny Pierce’s family pie crust
Single crust pie
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening
4-5 tablespoons cold water
Cut in ½ shortening until like corn-meal. [Add] remaining shortening till like small peas. [Add] in water 1 at a time gently tossing mixture [until enough] tablespoons added. Gather dough into ball [with] hands and press firmly. Roll out–put in pan [and] bake for 450 degrees for 10 to 12 mins, or until brown. [Cool] before filling.
Be sure to poke holes in crust with fork before baking.
[Double] Crust–2 cups flour, 1 tsp salt, 2/3 cups shortening, 5-7 tablespoons water. Same as for single crust but form 2 balls and roll out two crusts.