MINNEAPOLIS -- A black linen napkin made the chicken pop.
After ruffling a white towel over a square of rustic wooden planks, Rachel Ingber thought better of it and grabbed the darker cloth from the hallway "prop closet" in her home. She set it with a casual billow next to an All-Clad casserole dish holding a char-flecked roast chicken so plump it was practically hanging over the edges, and snapped a photo from above.
Moments later the picture appeared on a laptop screen. The chicken, surrounded by blackened lemon halves with a bunch of fresh green herbs peeking out of it, looked so good you could practically taste it.
"Winner?" Ingber asked her client and friend, Sarah Sherman. "Winner winner, chicken dinner," Sherman answered.
The photo shoot was one of several sessions between the two that will ultimately become a keepsake cookbook preserving the recipes of Sherman's late mother.
Ingber is a book photographer and designer, and her business, 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 hardbound and glossy cookbook, one that could stand up to any anthology of recipes found on a Barnes & Noble shelf.
There are ghostwriters who can craft you a biography, or research your family history. You can hire a songwriter to make an original piece of music on your behalf. Want to be portrayed as the main character in a pulpy detective novel? For the right price, you'll find an author. But Ingber's lane is different. The self-professed "cookbook addict" creates a volume that connects to history and memory in a visceral way: through tastes, smells and mouthwatering food photography.
"Food is such an emotional thing for families," said Ingber, 34. "It brings me so much joy to hear the stories and preserve 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 earmarked with a rainbow of Post-it tabs. A few years ago, as her husband's grandmother, who went by Nana Minnie, was about to turn 97, Ingber decided to gather a few of Nana Minnie's beloved recipes and type them up for herself.
She started taking photos of the dishes as she prepared them, and as she worked, formatting recipes and designing the book using publishing software, family members asked if they could have a copy when she was done. She finished the book, which has a closeup of Nana Minnie on the cover, for the matriarch's 100th birthday. When she died months later, the cookbook became even more meaningful to the extended family who purchased copies.
Over the years she worked on the project, and in the time since, Ingber stumbled onto a powerful way to keep a dear relative's memory alive. "I feel like our kids know Nana still, because they see her, and they know 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," 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'd want to be: in the kitchen."
A therapeutic venture
Ingber loved immersing herself in Nana Minnie's recipes during the yearslong process of making the cookbook, and she imagined she could streamline it and do the same for others. She left her job last year to pursue custom cookbooks as a career and has since created books for clients as far away as North Carolina.
When she was getting started, she spread the word among friends, and Sherman immediately signed up to work with her on a cookbook that would memorialize her mother, who died in 2018.
Sherman was born after her grandmother had died, and her mother had always toiled to re-create the dishes she had grown up with, from memory. Those attempts in the kitchen turned out to be a connective thread to the grandparent Sherman never knew. And she hopes the book that Ingber is helping her make about her mother will do the same for her young children.
Some clients cook their own food and bring it to Ingber to photograph. Other times, Ingber makes the dishes in her own kitchen, as she and Sherman did together on a recent afternoon, the scent of garlic and onion wafting over Ingber's makeshift photo studio on her dining room table.
Lemon chicken was one of Sherman's mother's specialties, even if there wasn't an exact set of instructions. One common challenge working with inherited recipes, Ingber said, is that they may be handwritten and leave steps out, may call for out-of-fashion ingredients like bottled lemon juice, or may have changed according to the cook's whims.
"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 about the glistening roast in the pan. Her brother remembered it another way. Her aunt gave her the directions for fried schnitzel. Sherman is putting three variations of lemon chicken among the approximately 45 recipes in the book.
Ingber and Sherman began working together on the book earlier this year, and their cooking and photography sessions came with an unexpected twist for Sherman.
"This has been super-therapeutic for me to get to process my grief in a very healthy and natural and comforting way," she said. "Here I felt like I was supporting Rachel, and this whole experience has been Rachel supporting me."
Controlling the narrative
Alicia Hamilton, a client who lives in Plymouth, Minnesota, also found comfort in the project. She contacted Ingber to work on a cookbook for her mother-in-law, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor last December.
Selecting and making favorite recipes, like Norwegian krumkake, became a "chemo activity" for Hamilton's in-laws, and it stirred up family stories Hamilton had never heard.
"The act of hearing those stories and understanding the history and process was just really comforting," she said.
Ingber worked quickly, and Hamilton presented her mother-in-law with the cookbook over Easter.
"We had some tears," Hamilton said, "but at one point she was like, 'Oh, my food looks really tasty.' "
Immersing themselves in family recipes gave them some solid footing during a difficult time, Hamilton said.
"When you're faced with something where you have no control, it's a way to feel like you can control some 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 finds herself becoming attached, a bit, to her clients. 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 their cookbooks on her shelf, she said, "I can still eat their food."
Want to make your own cookbook? After a consultation, Rachel Ingber will set a project fee based on the amount of recipes, photography and cooking needed. Projects typically take two to three months to complete, and copies of the finished books are additional cost and start at $40.
For more information and to contact Ingber, go to heirloomcollab.com, or find her work on Instagram heirloomcollaborative.
Note: This is one of Sarah Sherman's mother's no-recipe recipes, which will be published in a custom cookbook made by Rachel Ingber's Heirloom Collaborative. "The cavatelli was an accident," Sherman said. "My mom was out of pasta, so it's actually three pastas mixed together." Use any kind of pasta in your pantry, enough to equal about a pound dry. Or, use leftover cooked pasta.
1/4 to 1/2 pound each of two to three different types of pasta (see Note)
1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, diced
1 green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 pound sliced pepperoni
1 to 2 jars of spaghetti sauce
1/4 cup shredded provolone
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cook the pasta according to package directions. (If there are different cook times, make them separately.) Drain, drizzle with olive oil and set aside.
In a large skillet, cook the beef until it's totally browned. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. Discard any grease from the skillet. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the skillet and add onion and peppers, stirring until the onions are translucent. Add garlic and cook for 1 additional minute. Off heat, mix in the cooked beef, pepperoni and tomato sauce.
In a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish, layer half the mixed noodles, tomato-beef mixture and cheeses, then repeat, ending with the cheese on top.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until hot. Cover with foil if the cheese is starting to burn.
Nana Minnie's Poppy Seed Cookies
Makes about 200 cookies.
Note: These tiny 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 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup poppy seeds
In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla extract and continue to beat well.
Add flour, baking powder and poppy seeds and mix until well combined.
Divide dough into 4 parts and roll each out into a log-shaped roll about the width of a quarter. Wrap each individually with plastic wrap and place in the freezer until firm, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the dough from the freezer and roll a few times (still in plastic wrap) to re-form the log shape. Remove plastic.
Slice into thin, quarter-sized pieces and lay each piece out on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until browned. Remove from oven and transfer to baking rack to cool.