Pondering Cookbooks

I’ve been in the publishing business, in one form or another, for close to 20 years. But doing a cookbook was a very new experience. I’ve learned so much about cookbooks that I will never, ever, look at them the same way again. A good cookbook is a work of art. Here are the surprising top five things I’ve learned:
1. There are literary agents that specialize in cookbooks. Also, publicists specialize in cookbook authors.
2. Every publisher has its own recipe style. For example, one house may want you to use numbers, like “1/2” cup, another one might prefer “one-half” cup.
3. I’ve written in many venues and in several different styles of writing, but recipe headnotes were the most challenging thing I’ve ever written. (The headnotes are the text that comes before the recipe, often giving serving suggestions or a story about the recipe.) They need to be interesting, practical, and not too culinary-cutesy or gourmet artsy-fartsy. When I read a cookbook, the headnotes are often the part I read first. I go through the whole book and just read the headnotes.
4. Recipes need to be professionally tested—or at least, this cookbook needed that. I am not sure how testing is handled when it’s a chef’s book, but this restaurant cookbook needed to be professionally tested in order to see how the recipes would work for the home cook.
5. Recipes need to be gone over and over again meticulously. Recently a friend relayed a story to me about her husband making a dish that called for heavy whipped cream. He used cool-whip, which, of course, ruined the whole dish that otherwise had been prepared perfectly.

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