Rona and I are both Kentucky cookbook authors. We shared space at book-signing events for our first books and we also share a love for Kentucky – it’s food, people, and kitchens. It is with great joy that I was able to interview Rona about her cookbook, Classic Kentucky Meals. Though we live 90 miles apart, I ‘m sure that if we lived in the same town I’d frequent her weekly Cornbread Suppers as much as possible. The suppers are a fun way to share what we love: meals, stories, and the company of others who enjoy the same.
What is the name of your cookbook?
Classic Kentucky Meals: Stories, Ingredients & Recipes from the Traditional Bluegrass Kitchen
When was it published?
Is this your first cookbook?
This is my second book. My first, Sweet, Sweet Sorghum: Kentucky’s Golden Wonder, focuses on an ingredient, sweet sorghum syrup, and included eight recipes. It is primarily an introduction to the culture and uses of sorghum, not a cookbook. People buy it for the recipes, though, to my surprise.
What compelled you to want to write a second cookbook?
Kentucky’s growers and the great food they produce inspire me. I delight in telling the stories of Kentucky growers and Kentucky foods. I take great pleasure in using words and beautiful images to share stories about Kentucky cuisine and the people behind it. Classic Kentucky Meals came with two added bonuses: the opportunity to work with world class photographer Sarah Jane Sanders, and the great fun of having friends and fellow cooks coming together to prepare and share the five meals that form the book’s framework. In other words, I did it for love and for fun. The months of working on Classic Kentucky Meals were among the happiest of my life.
Can you tell us how you were offered a contract for your cookbook? Did you have an agent, self-publish, or find a publisher without an agent?
A commissioning editor from The History Press sent me a tweet praising my blog, Savoring Kentucky, and asking whether I had ever considered making a book built from blog entries. I did some research on the Press before responding. It took a few months for the idea that most excited me to take a firm shape. Fortunately, The History Press liked the proposed structure, topic, and framework, even though it was not drawn from my blog.
If I want to write a cookbook, do I need to retain an agent?
No. But it probably would help if your aim is to be published by a major press. On the other hand, if you simply love writing about food and writing and promoting recipes, it may be better to forge ahead, get work done, and become better at the craft. You can use all that evidence to attract the right agent.
Do aspiring cookbook authors need food blogs? If no, what other ways can they promote their work (or how do you promote your food writing work)?
Savoring Kentucky is the main platform for my writing about food. I like the freshness of blogging, and am happiest when working on a blog post. The two books I have written have been side projects to my blog. I doubt cookbook authors need food blogs, but they certainly need an excellent website.
What are your thoughts about an aspiring author, who’s an unknown food entity, writing a cookbook?
My advice: if you love some aspect of the world of food, and long to express that love so others can share with you, write your cookbook. Some of my favorite cookbooks have very small audiences (family, a large friendship circle, a small community.) These home-y, handmade books still change the world and make a contribution. They represent worthy work—if the author really loves the subject. Why not be in motion, doing work one loves?
What is your biggest piece of advice for someone who dreams of writing a cookbook, but is overwhelmed with the process?
Start writing anyway. Write whether it’s about a recipe or not. Get used to writing. Write for yourself, using a “practice writing” approach (from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones) or “morning pages” (from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.) If you need encouragement from others or don’t like working alone, form a small writing group or join one that already exists, or form a “completion group” to boost accountability for getting work done. Read Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception or Linchpin to learn to recognize “the resistance” to producing the work that calls to you, and teach yourself to “ship,” which means to produce in spite of fear, doubt and imperfection. Start a food blog or small email newsletter for friends and acquaintances. Develop and share one recipe at a time. When you see what you can do and how you like to work—even whether you like the actual work—you will know whether to stop sharing freely and start channeling your recipe work into a cookbook project.
How do you manage your time stay focused and get all your work done?
When I wrote Classic Kentucky Meals last year, I began working on the book full-time in March and delivered the book on July 15. The opportunity to have a new book ready for the Kentucky Book Fair in November motivated me. This aggressive timetable organized everything for me. I looked at my calendar and expressly cancelled everything but family obligations. I dedicated the rest of my time to the book. The sharp deadline created focus. Friends and acquaintances showed up to help when the timetable seemed impossible. So, in that case, a reason-driven deadline made all the difference.
For Savoring Kentucky, I aim toward two new posts weekly. Some weeks I don’t make it; many weeks I do. The idea that I’ll be posting soon keeps me alert to good blog topics as I live my life, meet people, visit markets, cook, eat, and interact with Kentucky food in everyday life. I love drawing on what I am already doing to create blog posts and share tips, resources, and ideas.
How did you pick recipes/develop recipes for your cookbooks? How will I know that the people who buy my cookbook will like the recipes?
I like recipes that are templates home cooks can use to customize the dish, based on what they have on hand. I also like recipes that encourage and empower home cooks to produce splendid, memorable, completely from scratch versions of favorite foods. As a result, I tend to like lots of instructions. For cookbooks, this can be a problem because the length of printed text makes the recipe scary. On my blog, I can make the instructions as detailed as I like, and include as many options and notes as I wish, trusting that more experienced cooks will skim and adapt, while newer cooks will find the detail needed to make the recipe successfully.
Tastes vary a lot. Before publication, I have no idea whether people are going to like the recipes in my cookbooks, though typically I have cooked and shared the dishes multiple times before making the recipes formal and final. Later I hear about favorites people cook over and over, like the Sorghum (Molasses) Crinkles cookies from Sweet, Sweet Sorghum and the Braised Lamb or Pork Shoulder in Classic Kentucky Meals. In some cases, people enjoy my cookbooks without actually cooking. Readers tell me they are at least as interested in the head notes for a recipe or the stories behind a recipe, as they are in the recipe itself. Cookbooks make good reading, even when one is nowhere near a kitchen. So there are many ways to develop text and images that please readers.
Cookbook author and culinary dietitian Maggie Green coaches aspiring cookbook authors in the process of writing cookbooks, cookbook proposals, and building their author platform. Download her checklist “Am I Ready to Write A Cookbook?”.