What I Learned About Tech Packs From Making A Family Recipe For Thanksgiving

This past week was Thanksgiving in the US. My husband and I usually host, and this year we hosted my family for the Thanksgiving meal. Everyone brought dishes, but we prepared the turkey, stuffing (my family’s recipe), mashed potatoes, and homemade noodles (my husband’s family recipe). We both got up early and started cooking. I pulled up the stuffing recipe that I hadn’t made since last Thanksgiving, read it over, and realized I needed to call my mom. I knew looking at the recipe that it was not what we had done in previous years. My mom had made it so many times that she knew the substitutions and never bothered to update the recipe. The stuffing always turns out great – it is one of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes – but it feels like we’re winging it every year going off of memory from the year before. 

Another holiday staple in our house is the homemade egg noodle recipe that my husband’s family makes. For those of you new to this tradition, the noodles are boiled in chicken broth and spooned over your mashed potatoes like a noodle gravy, because why not top your starch with more starch? This noodle recipe has been passed down generations in my husband’s family but isn’t really written down.

This year, my husband took the lead on the noodles and taught the newcomer to my family – my sister’s fiance – how to make them. “You’re going to need a lot of flour.” “How much is a lot of flour?” “More than you think.” Then a few minutes later… “Why is the dough breaking apart?” “You put in too much flour.” “You said I’ll need a lot of flour!” “Yeah, but not that much.”

Meanwhile, my husband’s family was at his brother’s house making noodles of their own. Shortly after our meal, my husband got a call from his brother asking about the noodle recipe. “Don’t you have it written down somewhere? We can’t remember how long to cook them for.” Turns out he had written down the recipe a few years ago, but it got lost in an email thread somewhere and he had to search for it and then forward it on. 

The feast turned out great all around and we’re still enjoying the leftovers, but all the debate, guesswork, and phoning a friend about the family recipes got me thinking about how not having a tech pack results in similar commotion for similar reasons. Here’s what I realized from the experience:

  1. It is hard to remember the exact steps to make something when you haven’t done it in a while.
  2. It is frustrating to know that what you’re looking at is wrong, but not know what the right way is – especially when what you’re working on is holding up the next step of the process.
  3. It is helpful to keep a record of why certain substitutions or changes were made. 
  4. It is very hard to describe how to make something by feel to someone who has never made it or seen the finished product before. 
  5. It is hard to make something consistently the same when there is no standard for consistency.
  6. What do you do if the person who knew how to make the thing isn’t around or available anymore?
  7. Having to call someone else to ask questions takes up everyone’s time.
  8. If it is written down, but not in a place that is accessible and easy to find, then it isn’t useful (i.e. don’t keep important reference information solely in an email thread).

A tech pack is similar to a well-written recipe. It tells you all the materials you need and how much of each. It clearly walks you through the process of making the product in enough detail that someone who has never made it before can follow. It documents all the changes that were made and why. It can be read and used by anyone. It is the go-to reference for making the thing and is easy to locate. And it shows a picture of the finished product. 

With a tech pack, the pressure is off to remember everything in your head. You’ll be able to source samples from several factories and get consistent results. You won’t have to be tied to your email or phone 24/7 to answer questions – because the answers are in the tech pack already. You don’t have to rely on the passed-down knowledge of certain sewers to make your product. Someone new can pick up the project and follow the instructions to make it. 

As we were lounging around after the big Thanksgiving feast, my dad and I updated the stuffing recipe on our family recipe website and made detailed notes about what we actually do and updated the instructions so they were more clear and thorough. Next year, I won’t have to worry about if the stuffing will turn out right. I know it will; thanks to the well-crafted recipe.

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