A black linen napkin popped the chicken.
After ruffled a white towel over a square of rustic wood planks, Rachel Ingber changed her mind and snagged the darker towel from the “prop closet” in the hallway of her Plymouth home. She placed it with a nonchalant sway next to an All-Clad casserole dish containing a charred fried chicken so thick it was practically hanging over the edges and snapped a photo from above.
Moments later, the image appeared on a laptop screen. Surrounded by blackened lemon halves with a bunch of fresh green herbs peeking out, the chicken looked so good you could practically taste it.
“Winner?” Ingber asked her client and friend Sarah Sherman. “Winner winner chicken dinner,” Sherman replied.
The photoshoot was one of several sessions between the two that will ultimately grow into a cookbook that preserves Sherman’s late mother’s recipes.
Ingber is a book photographer and designer and her company, Heirloom Collaborative, specializes in food. Clients meet with her over the course of weeks or months to flesh out a vision for a personal collection of recipes that, when printed, will be a hardcover and glossy cookbook to rival any anthology of recipes that on a Barnes & Nobles shelf.
There are ghostwriters who can write you a biography or research your family history. You can hire a songwriter to create an original piece of music on your behalf. Do you want to be the main character in a stupid crime novel? You can find an author for the right price. But Ingber’s track is different. The self-confessed “cookbook addict” creates a volume that connects to history and memory in a visceral way: through tastes, smells and delicious food photography.
“Food is such an emotional thing for families,” said Ingber, 34. “I get so much joy from hearing the stories and preserving these recipes.”
keep memories alive
As a former market researcher, Ingber started creating cookbooks as a hobby. She has a pantry full of her favorites, marked with a rainbow of Post-it tabs. A few years ago, when her husband’s grandmother, whose name was Nana Minnie, was about to turn 97, Ingber decided to collect some of Nana Minnie’s beloved recipes and type them up for herself.
She began taking photos of the dishes as she prepared them, and as she worked, formatting recipes and designing the book with publishing software, family members asked if they could have a copy when she was finished. For the matriarch’s 100th birthday, she finished the book, which has a close-up of Nana Minnie on the cover. When she died months later, the cookbook became even more relevant to the extended family who bought copies.
Over the years she worked on the project and in the time since, Ingber stumbled upon a powerful way to keep the memory of a dear relative alive. “I feel like our kids still know Nana because they see her, and they know when we make the chocolate chip cookies from her cookbook, these 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 just food and cookbooks; it’s that person’s legacy,” said Ingber’s husband, Brad. “It feels like she’s in the kitchen with us even though she’s not here anymore.”
Rachel added, “And that’s where she wants to be: in the kitchen.”
A therapeutic endeavor
Ingber loved delving into Nana Minnie’s recipes throughout the cookbook’s years-long process of making it, and she imagined she could streamline it and do the same for others. She left her job last year to pursue a career in bespoke cookbooks and has since written books for clients as far away as North Carolina.
When she first started, she spread the word among friends, and Sherman immediately signed on to work with her on a cookbook commemorating her mother, who died in 2018.
Sherman was born after her grandmother died, and her mother had always strived to recreate from memory the dishes she grew up eating. Those attempts in the kitchen turned out to be a link to grandparents Sherman never knew. And she hopes that the book Ingber will help her write about her mother will do the same for her young children.
Some customers cook their own food and bring it to Ingber to be photographed. Another time, Ingber prepares the dishes in her own kitchen, as she and Sherman did together one afternoon recently, while the scent of garlic and onions wafts over Ingber’s makeshift photo studio at their dining table.
Lemon chicken was Sherman’s mother’s specialty, although there were no specific instructions. A common challenge when working with inherited recipes, Ingber said, is that they may be handwritten and omit steps, may require outdated ingredients like bottled lemon juice, or may have changed according to the whims of the cook.
“She didn’t make the same recipe,” Sherman said. “Sometimes it was like, here’s a chicken, here’s a lemon. I remember it coming out that way,” she said of the shiny roast in the pan. Her brother remembered it differently. Her aunt gave her the instructions for fried schnitzel. Sherman includes 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 photo sessions took an unexpected turn for Sherman.
“It was super therapeutic for me to process my grief in a very healthy and natural and calming way,” she said. “Here I felt like I was supporting Rachel and that whole experience was Rachel supporting me.”
control of the narrative
Alicia Hamilton, a client based in Plymouth, also found solace 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.
Choosing and preparing favorite recipes like Norwegian krumkake became a “chemo activity” for Hamilton’s in-laws and spawned family stories Hamilton had never heard.
“The act of hearing those stories and understanding the story and the process was just very comforting,” she said.
Ingber worked quickly, and Hamilton gave her mother-in-law the cookbook for Easter.
“We had a few tears,” Hamilton said, “but at one point she said, ‘Oh, my food looks really delicious.’ “
Diving into family recipes gave them a solid footing during a difficult time, Hamilton said.
“When you’re faced with something that you don’t have any control over, you feel like you can control part of the narrative,” she said. “It feels like a tangible thing we could do at a time that’s so unpredictable.”
For her part, Ingber notices that she becomes 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 a part of your family,” she said. But with a copy of her cookbooks on her shelf, she said, “I can still eat her food.”
Would you like to create your own cookbook? After consultation, Rachel Ingber sets a project fee based on the amount of recipes, photography and cooking needed. A project typically takes two to three months to complete, and copies of the finished books start at $40.
For more information and to contact Ingber, visit heirloomcollab.com or find her work on Instagram @heirloomcollaborative.
Note: This is one of Sarah Sherman’s mom’s no-recipe recipes being published in a custom cookbook by Rachel Ingber’s Heirloom Collaborative. “The Cavatelli were an accident,” Sherman said. “My mom ran out of pasta, so it’s actually three pasta mixed together.” Use any type of pasta in your pantry, enough to equal about a pound dry. Or use leftover cooked pasta.
• 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 pounds two to three different types of pasta (see note)
• 1 pound ground beef
• Olive oil
• 1 medium onion, diced
• 1 green pepper, chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, chopped
• 1⁄4 pound sliced hot peppers
• 1 to 2 glasses of spaghetti sauce
• 1⁄4 c. shredded provolone
• 1⁄4 c. shredded mozzarella
• 1⁄4 c. grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cook the noodles according to package directions. (If there are different cooking times, do them separately.) Drain, drizzle with olive oil, and set aside.
In a large skillet, sear the beef until fully browned. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. Discard any fat from the pan. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in skillet and add onion and bell pepper and stir until onions are translucent. Add garlic and cook 1 more minute. With the heat off, mix in the cooked beef, pepperoni, and tomato sauce.
In a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish, layer half of the mixed pasta, tomato and beef mixture and cheese, then repeat and finish with the cheese.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until hot. Cover with foil when 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 favorites. After compiling Nana Minnie’s recipes for her extended family, Ingber launched a new career as a writer of individual cookbooks.
• 1 c. (2 sticks) butter, softened
• 1 c. sugar
• 2 eggs
• 2 TEA SPOONS. vanilla extract
• 4c. all purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon. baking powder
• 1⁄4 c. Poppy
In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla extract and continue beating well.
Add the flour, baking powder and poppy seeds and mix well.
Divide the dough into 4 parts and roll each into a round roll about a quarter wide. Wrap each individually in plastic wrap and place in the freezer until set, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the dough from the freezer and roll it (still in plastic wrap) a few times to reshape the shape of the block. 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 the oven and place on a wire rack to cool.