A black linen napkin made the chicken pop.
After Rachel Ingber fumbled with a white towel over a square of rustic wooden planks, she thought it over and picked up the dark cloth from the “props cabinet” in the hallway of her home in Plymouth. She placed it with a casual wave next to an All-Clad casserole with a charcoal-streaked roast chicken that was so thick it almost hung over the edges, and snapped a photo from above.
Moments later, the photo appeared on a laptop screen. The chicken, surrounded by blackened lemon halves with a bunch of fresh green herbs peeking out, looked so good you could almost taste it.
“Winner?” Ingber asked her client and friend, Sarah Sherman. “Winner winner, chicken dinner,” Sherman replied.
The photo shoot was one of many sessions between the two that will eventually become a keepsake cookbook featuring Sherman’s late mother’s recipes.
Ingber is a book photographer and designer, and her company, Heirloom Collaboration, specialized in nutrition. Clients meet with her over the course of weeks or months to work out a vision for a personal collection of recipes that, when printed, will be a hardbound and glossy cookbook, one that will stand up to any anthology of recipes on a Barnes. & Noble shelf.
There are ghostwriters who can create a biography for you or research your family history. You can hire a songwriter to create an original piece of music on your behalf. Want to be portrayed as the main character in a pulpy detective novel? You can find an author for the right price. But Ingber’s job is different. The self-proclaimed “cookbook addict” creates a volume that viscerally connects with history and memory: through tastes, smells and mouthwatering food photography.
“Food is so emotional for families,” says Ingber, 34. “It makes me so happy to hear the stories and keep these recipes.”
Keeping memories alive
A former market researcher, Ingber started making cookbooks as a hobby. She has a pantry full of her favorites, which are marked with a rainbow of Post-it tabs. A few years ago, when her husband’s grandmother, who followed Nana Minnie, was about to turn 97, Ingber decided to collect some of Nana Minnie’s beloved recipes and type them out for herself.
She started taking pictures of the dishes as she prepared them, and as she worked, drafting recipes and designing the book using publishing software, relatives asked if they could have a copy when she was done. She finished the book, with a close-up of Nana Minnie on the cover, for the matriarch’s 100th birthday. When she died months later, the cookbook took on even more meaning for the extended family who bought copies.
She worked on the project over the years, and in the time that followed, Ingber came up with a powerful way to keep the memory of a dear family member alive. “I feel like our kids still know Nana because they see her, and they know that when we make the chocolate chip cookies from her cookbook, those are Nana’s cookies,” Ingber said.
“I don’t know if it’s because she’s on the cover, but it feels like so much more than food and cookbooks; it’s that person’s legacy,” says Brad, Ingber’s husband. “It feels like she’s in our kitchen with us, even though she’s gone.”
Rachel added, “And that’s where she’d like to be: in the kitchen.”
A therapeutic enterprise
Ingber loved immersing herself in Nana Minnie’s recipes during the years-long process of creating the cookbook, and she imagined she could streamline it and do the same for others. She quit her job last year to pursue custom cookbooks and has since created books for clients as far as North Carolina.
When she was just starting out, she spread the word among friends, and Sherman immediately signed up to work with her on a cookbook in memory of her mother, who passed away in 2018.
Sherman was born after her grandmother died, and her mother had always toiled to recreate, from memory, the dishes she grew up with. Those efforts in the kitchen proved to be a common thread for the grandparent Sherman never knew. And she hopes the book Ingber helps her create about her mother will do the same for her young children.
Some customers cook their own food and bring it to Ingber for shooting. Other times, Ingber is doing the dishes in her own kitchen, as she and Sherman recently did together, the smell of garlic and onion wafting over Ingber’s makeshift photo studio on her dining table.
Lemon chicken was one of Sherman’s mother’s specialties, even though there were no exact instructions. A common challenge when working with inherited recipes, Ingber said, is that they can be handwritten and omit steps, call for out-of-fashion ingredients like bottled lemon juice, or be altered at the cook’s whim.
“She didn’t make the same recipe,” Sherman said. “Sometimes it was like, here’s a chicken, here’s some lemon. I remember it coming out like this,” she said of the glistening roast in the pan. Her brother remembered differently. Her aunt gave her the directions for fried schnitzel. Sherman lists three variations of lemon chicken among the approximately 45 recipes in the book.
Ingber and Sherman began collaborating on the book earlier this year, and their cooking and photography sessions took an unexpected turn for Sherman.
“This was super therapeutic for me to process my grief in a very healthy, natural and comforting way,” she said. “Here I felt like I was supporting Rachel, and this whole experience was Rachel supporting me.”
Mastering the Story
Alicia Hamilton, a client who lives in Plymouth, also found comfort in the project. She contacted Ingber to work on a cookbook for her mother-in-law, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor last December.
Selecting and making favorite recipes, such as Norwegian krumkake, became a “chemo activity” for Hamilton’s in-laws, evoking family stories Hamilton had never heard before.
“It was just really comforting to hear those stories and understand the history and the process,” she said.
Ingber worked quickly and Hamilton handed her mother-in-law the cookbook at Easter.
“We had some tears,” Hamilton said, “but at one point she thought, ‘Oh, my food looks really tasty. †
Immersing themselves in family recipes gave them a solid footing in a difficult time, Hamilton said.
“When you’re faced with something you can’t control, it’s a way of feeling like you can control part of the story,” she said. “It feels like something tangible that we can do at a time so unpredictable.”
For her part, Ingber finds herself getting a little attached to her customers. Food can do that.
“I get a little sad when projects end because it’s like I have no reason to be part of your family,” she said. But with a copy of their cookbooks on her shelf, she said, “I can still eat their food.”
Want to make your own cookbook? After consultation, Rachel Ingber determines a project fee based on the required amount of recipes, photography and cooking. Projects typically take two to three months to complete, and copies of the completed books start at $40.
Note: This is one of Sarah Sherman’s mom’s over-the-counter recipes that will be published in a special cookbook created by Rachel Ingber’s Heirloom Collaborative. “The cavatelli was an accident,” Sherman said. “My mom ran out of pasta, so it’s basically three pastas mixed together.” Use any kind of pasta in your pantry, enough to dry about a pound. Or use leftover cooked pasta.
† 14 until 12 lb. any of two to three different types of pasta (see note)
• 1 pound ground beef
• Olive oil
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1 green bell pepper, chopped
• 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
† 14 pound sliced pepperoni
• 1 to 2 jars of spaghetti sauce
† 14 c. grated provolone
† 14 c. grated mozzarella
† 14 c. grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cook the pasta according to package directions. (If there are different cooking times, make them separately.) Drain, drizzle with olive oil and set aside.
Fry the meat in a large skillet until completely browned. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. Discard any fat from the pan. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and add the onion and bell pepper, stirring until the onions are translucent. Add garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Remove from the heat with the cooked beef, pepperoni and tomato sauce.
In a 9-by-13-inch casserole, place half of the mixed noodles, tomato-beef mixture, and cheeses, then repeat, finishing with cheese on top.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until hot. Cover with foil if the cheese starts to burn.
Nana Minnie’s Poppy Seed Cookies
Makes about 200 cookies.
Note: These little cookies were one of Ingber’s Nana Minnie’s favorites. After compiling Nana Minnie’s recipes for her extended family, Ingber launched a new career as a custom cookbook creator.
• 1 c. (2 sticks) butter, softened
• 1 c. sugar
• 2 eggs
• 2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 4 c. all purpose flower
• 1 teaspoon. baking powder
† 14 c. poppy seed
In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla extract and continue beating well.
Add flour, baking powder and poppy seeds and mix until well blended.
Divide the dough into 4 parts and roll each out into a block-shaped roll about a quarter wide. Wrap each individually in plastic wrap and place in the freezer until firm, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the dough from the freezer and roll it a few times (still in plastic wrap) to reshape into a log. Remove plastic.
Cut into thin, quarter-sized pieces and place each piece on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until browned. Remove from oven and transfer to baking rack to cool.