In February I (Maggie) attended a fun and informative Cookbook Conference in New York City. June Hersh participated on a panel during a pre-conference session on about cookbook publishing. The panel included an agent and several cookbook authors – one of them was June. I loved the energy with which she spoke about writing a cookbook and could feel her passion for her topic. In addition she was encouraging to aspiring cookbook authors in the audience. She passed out her business card and I was excited to contact June when I returned home to ask her to participate in this interview series. She was more than willing and here we are. June has two books under her belt, and a third one is in the works. She’ll be the first to tell you that if you want to write a cookbook, you can do it – just find the fun in your passion. Thanks, June. You’re a wonderful ambassador for cookbooks.
How/why did you become interested in writing your first cookbook, Recipes Remembered?
Recipes Remembered was born from a directive my sister gave me after we sold our family business. She said, “We did well, not let’s do good.” I found myself with time and energy to do something that would be both fulfilling for me and charitable. At that time my family was supportive of the Museum of Jewish Heritage- a Living memorial to the Holocaust. I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could combine my passion for cooking, my love of writing with my respect for the Museum. The book evolved from that point. I gathered a list of Holocaust survivors from the Museum, explained to them I would donate all proceeds the book might earn, and began interviewing survivors; writing their stories and testing their recipes.
Did you work with an agent for your first cookbook? And if so (or if not) would you recommend that an aspiring cookbook author work with an agent?
I was very fortunate. Because this was a philanthropic endeavor, I was able to attract like-minded people to the project. To that end, a Museum member who is a published cookbook author referred me to her agent and she graciously represented the book without compensation. Interestingly enough, it was a teacher of mine, Andrew F. Smith, from The New School who actually found my publisher for me, but I thanked the agent appropriately and she represented me on my next book, which she did sell to a mainstream publisher. I found that by working with an agent I had someone to bounce ideas off of and she proofed and critiqued both my proposals and negotiated my second book deal. As a novice, I found this very helpful, so if you can snag the attention of an agent I would tell new authors to do just that. It helps you gain credibility when approaching a publisher and makes the process less stressful. It does, however, cut into your proceeds, so it is a matter of what is more valuable to you; the assistance or the proceeds. Being mindful, you might not gain the latter without the former.
How was your first book published?
Andy, who I mentioned previously, contacted Ruder Finn Press, a division of Ruder Finn PR and suggested they contact me about the book. RFP looks for projects with a social message and the fact that they are a not-for profit enterprise and I was as too, made us a perfect fit. I had contacted self-publishers, book packagers and on-line publishers to explore those possibilities, but happily, RFP came through and they did an amazing job of editing, compiling, designing and printing the first edition. We are now in our 4th printing and the Museum has taken on the role of publisher. RFP graciously gave me author’s rights after the first printing.
Did you have to write a cookbook proposal, and if so, do you have any tips for writing a cookbook proposal?
I have written several proposals, the first two resulted in book deals, the third is pending. Some people feel writing the proposal is more daunting and often more time consuming then actually writing the book. I feel it should just flow and if it doesn’t you probably need to revisit your idea. I feel the book you write should be a natural fit, an organic process and if you are struggling with defining your concept or pitching your idea- the concept and idea probably need to be refined. Once you do get the flow, speak in your voice and be authentic. Editors are trained to recognize people who are not fully knowledgeable or comfortable with their idea, and you don’t want to misrepresent. That will only cause lots of trouble during the actual writing of the book. Furthermore, you want to write with ease and if you start out with a false impression it is way to difficult to maintain that throughout the process.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Recipes Remembered, and what would you tell an aspiring cookbook author that they need to be sure to do (or not do) when the embark on writing their first cookbook?
My biggest challenge was accurately testing and recording the recipes. As they were not original recipes, but rather recipes that I was given by an aging community who NEVER wrote their recipes down. I had to reinvent much, but remain true to the contributor- not an easy balance. For most authors this isn’t a problem. I would tell cookbook authors to keep very careful notes, have an oven thermometer to be sure your temps are accurate, a kitchen timer set every time you start a recipe and two instant read thermometers to verify internal temps of prepared foods. Have people willing to taste and test your recipes, and beginners who will work from them to be sure they are clear and accurate. I would also have no hubris, and be willing to accept that you don’t know what you don’t know- so ask someone else. Go to the butcher, the spice maker, the gadget guru for advice.
I understand you now have a second book, Kosher Carnivore. Tell us about the way you went from Recipes Remembered to Kosher Carnivore?
Recipes Remembered was kosher out of respect for the survivor community, a style of cooking that while I am very familiar with, is not part of my daily life. I found it to be an eye opener, so after finishing that book I proposed The Kosher Carnivore, which would help anyone from the “kosher clueless” to the “kosher committed” better buy and prepare kosher meat. The art of cooking meat without butter or cream, or making sides that are compatible according to kosher laws interested me. I spent countless hours with kosher butchers learning all about the various cuts that are acceptable and how to talk to your butcher to get just the right cut for the right prep. I found it fascinating learning these new tips and techniques.
Any more books in the works? How do you keep up your momentum and interest in your recipe and cookbook writing?
My husband says I should write a book about cookbook ideas as I have a new one nearly every day. Let’s remember, I’m the crazy woman who had her first two cookbooks released within 4 months of each other on different topics from different publishers! I write cookbooks with what I call a charitable flavor ( all proceeds from Recipes Remembered are donated to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and from The Kosher Carnivore, a portion goes to Mazon- a non denominational group that distributes food to food pantries nationwide). My third book in the works is tentatively titled Simple, Simpler, Simplest. Its concept is to take one central ingredient and present three completely different preparations. The Simple prep would be the most complex, the simpler prep would be for the typical home cook and the simplest would be for the beginner. St. Martin’s has shown strong interest and the charitable component would be all proceeds benefitting the Bachmann-Strauss dystonia and Parkinson Foundation. Chef David Burke has already signed on to write the foreword. It is a topic I am having fun developing and testing recipes for. For me, that’s what it’s all about; finding the fun in your passion and moving forward from that point.