PHOTO: A page from a custom family cookbook, above, created by photographer Sarah Arnoff Yeoman shows a family cooking matzo brei together. Sarah recently photographed her own family cooking traditional recipes together including, at right, her father, Richard Arnoff, making the family-favorite matzo brei.
After the death of her grandmother and great-grandmother, photographer Sarah Arnoff Yeoman and her family realized their family culinary traditions were also dying.
“All their knowledge was kept on hand-written recipe cards stored somewhere in my aunt’s house,” says Sarah.
Sarah realized that common phenomenon combined with millennials reliance on ready-made dinners was destroying the art of home cooking.
“So I wanted to offer a service that helps keep traditions alive,” she says. “I’ve been helping families preserve their culinary heritage and traditions through food-focused photo sessions that document their family recipes. After the session, I compile their photos and recipes into a custom cookbook that is meant to be a new family heirloom.”
Sarah launched her Family Cookbook business in Salt Lake City, near where she grew up and where she had been a copyeditor and photographer for a food magazine, as well as a weekly newspaper. Since moving to Portland last year, she has used that experience to expand the cookbook project and created a webpage – yeomanphoto.com/cookbook.
Most of her photo shoots are in Oregon, Utah and Southern California, but she has sessions planned in New York City, Connecticut and Toronto/Montreal this fall. She is happy to accommodate a package for families wherever they might be.
“The idea is to inspire people to keep cooking and get in touch with their culinary heritage,” says Sarah. “I’m hoping to create a system where a portion of proceeds from every paid cookbook shoot goes toward providing a family session for a refugee or low-income family in the area. I believe that everyone deserves family photos, and I want to be able to help provide important images for families who might otherwise never consider getting photos done because of financial need.”
As her business grows, she plans to set up a referral system on her site where people can nominate families they think might benefit. She is also working with nonprofits that serve refugees and immigrants to develop relationships.
“I still very much believe that everyone deserves family photos and I hope that I can establish this system to give back to the community,” she says.
The heirloom cookbook may be the first time some of the recipes have ever been written down.
“Sometimes the knowledge is stored in grandma’s memory and we need to translate her instincts to written measurements without losing that sense of feeling and intuition she inherited from her relatives,” says Sarah.
From booking to a final cookbook is a multi-stage process that takes several weeks, though the photo shoot can be done in a few hours or over several days. Sarah guides the family as they collect recipes and choose which to photograph before the photo shoot of everyone making special dishes together. She sends the photos to the family who select their favorites to print in the cookbook Then Sarah lays out the images next to the recipes and families receive a hybrid family photo album/cookbook.
Sarah grew up in a small Utah town where she says she and her siblings were probably the only non-Mormon kids in school until she was about 10. Her father, Richard Arnoff, is Jewish and her mom, Jolene Arnoff, is Scandinavian. The nearest synagogue was more than an hour away.
“We celebrated the big holidays with food,” she says. The celebrations would be more traditional when “we’d visit my Jewish family in California, or they would come to Utah for holidays.”
“My favorite Jewish recipe is probably my dad’s matzo brei,” she says. “He’d make it at Passover but also during random weekends and it became a childhood favorite for all of us.”
But she said her Jewish identity didn’t really solidify until she went to Israel on a Birthright trip.
“My brother, cousin and I were extremely fortunate to go on Birthright together in 2015,” she says. “It was a really great experience and kind of clarified my Jewish identity.”
Now she enjoys attending events at Moishe House in Portland, and hopes to include her non-Jewish husband in some of the Jewish celebrations and activities created by that grassroots community for young adults.
For Sarah, the cookbook project recently took a personal turn that brought the project back to the source of its inspiration. After her mom found some cookbooks made by Sarah’s great-grandmother’s retirement community and some of her hand-written recipes, the family had their own cooking day when Sarah returned to Utah for a family visit.
“My dad made his matzo brei, and the rest of us made challah, blintzes, matzo ball soup and macaroons,” she says.
“I feel like doing this has brought me closer with all my family members even though we now live a lot farther away,” she adds. “And I think everyone I work with learns something new from their family members during the session and it brings them closer together as well. I really want to share that feeling because it’s not just about images.”