At ten years old, I had a paper route. I was responsible for delivering the afternoon and weekend editions, making the rounds on my pink Huffy Sweet Thunder 2. Like other young girls, I had a deeply-rooted fixation with horses and I'd ride through the neighborhood, pretending my Huffy was a jet black jumper named Midnight Dream Chaser. My trusty steed would wait patiently as I rolled the papers, one by one, and stuff them into my ink-stained bag.
The papers were delivered to a central distribution point at the corner of Miramar & Kingsway Drive. There, I'd meet other kids with routes next to mine. Each day, I'd rush to the stack of waiting papers and get a thrill trying to read the headline through the plastic binding. I'd flip the bundled stack over, pop the yellow cord, and as if inhaling for the first time, the papers would expand, noticeably.
My route yielded $20 a week, including tips. I'd hoard my money until Scholastic Books came to my classroom. Paper fliers listed book after book for purchase, at a discounted rate. Super geek that I am, I wanted them ALL. I'd pour over the list, reading each description and study the thumbnails. When the deadline arrived, I'd be forced to make a final decision...and anxiously wait for our order. In my world, anticipation for Scholastic Books dwarfed Christmas by a long shot.
While other kids obsessed with Donkey Kong and arcade games, I was perfectly content, reading my books. Eventually my parents learned, being sent to my room was not an effective punishment. After the allotted time was up, my mom would call and welcome me back to the family. Already engrossed in a book, I'd shuffle my way down the stairs, hours after my punishment expired!
Eventually, my obsession with books was replaced by boys and clothes.
For years, my book fetish lingered, dormant -- until I discovered an interest in cooking. From that moment, it was over. Each book unfolded a new interest: food politics, history and science to cookbooks ranging from baking, chocolate, condiments, party food, plate styling, regional or international...you name it, I had to have it.
When I did PR for the Chef, one of the first things that endeared him to me...was his collection of over 800 cookbooks. I picked his brain...and made a point to learn his favorite authors. His style, simple, yet elegant was deeply influenced by the French chef, Michel Roux. To better understand the chef, I bought every book Michel Roux wrote, and read them cover to cover.
As the piles of books grew, suddenly, I realized, "I need 12 lifetimes to try all these recipes!" So I gathered up my friends and we went to work.
Each month we assigned ourselves a different book and cooked diligently from them. But to be fair to the author, we established a few rules: no substitutions, no modifications, and you must choose a recipe that challenges you in some way--by technique or ingredient. The recipe must be prepared exactly as the author has written it.
Monthly, the recipe choices were submitted to me and compiled on a spreadsheet to avoid duplications. Dishes were prepared at home or finished on site, and shared potluck style. We'd meet to enjoy sumptuous late afternoon lunches, and discussed the books with earnest:
- How did the recipes read?
- Were the steps easy to follow?
- Did they add any unnecessary steps? Or omit anything?
- Were the header notes engaging?
- How was the overall selection of recipes? Balanced?
- And were there any surprises?
Between girl talk, the conversation always steered back to the book. We analyzed everything: "Who made this dish? What were you challenged by? Any unusual ingredients or steps? What was your overall impression of the recipe? Did the final dish match your expectation in the head notes? And would you make it again?"
At our table, we tackled some of the finest cookbooks in modern day print: Thomas Keller, Julie Sahni, Rick Bayless, Julia Child, Jerry Truanfeld, Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid and the list goes on.
For two years, our group met every month. It was a wonderful way to explore recipes and take a hard look at the makings of a cookbook. We tried no less than 10 dishes from each book, and were able to get a solid foothold on the author's premise.
Our group comprised of working chefs, cooking school instructors and other food enthusiasts. Tackling these recipes, we were experienced enough to know, the outcome--for better or worse, rested solely on the recipes.
One chef also functioned as a cookbook ghost writer. It was fascinating to see her read through a recipe and say, "That won't work, but let's try it anyway."
After two very disappointing books, we honed the list to represent modern classics. For the two duds, we tried several dishes but discovered none that were flavorful or particularly noteworthy. That experience drove us to ask...who tests these recipes? It became painfully evident, not every author thoroughly tests their recipes. Over time, we began to notice serious errors and omissions. And while some books were aesthetically beautiful, clearly more money was invested in the graphic design than the recipes.
This experience has changed the way I look at cookbooks, and I couldn't be more grateful. For a book that is more than a mere collection of recipes, there's a ton of work that goes into the process. Books that add value and truly have something to teach are sure-fire winners. Whether you're introduced to a new ingredient (garbanzo bean flour) or a new technique (caramelize part of the sugar before introducing it to your custard base), to me, these books are worth their weight in gold.
Over the past few months, I've had the good fortune to be able to meet with several authors. We've discussed everything from what inspires them -- to the challenges of writing a book...and the shifting arena of the publishing world. Creating a book is not an easy process. Along the way, there are many challenges...and very few things are under the author's control -- from the cover art, to graphic design, photos, the choice of paper and the editing of crucial information to save space.
I often ask, "Are you satisfied with the end result?"
The answers are inspiring, as well as intriguing.