It’s Kentucky cookbook author month here on the interview series and today I introduce a cookbook author who first wrote two history books, one about Lexington, KY. Originally from England, Fiona spent several years living in Japan before moving to Kentucky. With an academic background in American history and women’s studies, she was fascinated with the similarities between Kentucky and her native England. In June, Fiona and I are sharing a space at the Lexington Farmers’ Market “Homegrown Author Series” and I look forward to spending the morning with Fiona.
What is the name of your book?
A Culinary History of Kentucky: Burgoo, Beer Cheese, & Goetta.
When was it published?
Is this your first food history book?
Yes. I’d written two local history books but this was my first to look at this history of food.
What compelled you to want to write a your Kentucky food history? Can you tell us how you were offered a contract for your book? Did you have an agent, self-publish, or find a publisher without an agent?
I’ve been interested in collecting recipes for some time and have been food blogging for a few years at CrazyEnglishWomanCooks.com, but that was always more as a way of sharing what I was cooking with my family and friends back in England.
Since moving to Kentucky about 13 years ago, I’ve always been struck by the similarities in culture (food, music, language, etc.) between here and the British Isles. I think the anthropologist in me is always keen to find common points between cultures.
The History Press, with whom I’d published Wicked Lexington, approached me to say they would like to work with me again, but I felt as if I had gone as far as I wanted to with Lexington history. I mentioned my food blog and they happened to have started a new collection: “American Palate, Exploring America’s Regional History Through Food”. They sent me a few samples of other books in the series and I instantly knew that I wanted to write something for them.
Their first suggestion was bourbon but there are many writers who know much more about that subject than me. I had just written a piece for Culture magazine about the history of beer cheese, and so I suggested a more general history of Kentucky food – looking at the influence of immigrant groups and at regional dishes. Kentucky has so many foods that are very specific to certain locales – beer cheese in Central Kentucky, goetta just across from Cincinnati, etc. These were fascinating to me.
The History Press loved the idea, and then all I had to do was write the book!
If I want to write a book, do I need to retain an agent?
No, not in my experience for non-fiction with smaller presses.
Do aspiring cookbook/book authors need food blogs? If no, what other ways can they promote their work (or how do you promote your food writing work)?
I think a food blog certainly helped to demonstrate my interest in the subject. The publisher knew I could write and knew I could write history, but a food blog helped to demonstrate that I did indeed know something about food.
What are your thoughts about an aspiring author, who’s an unknown food entity, writing a cookbook?
There are hundreds of food blogs and just as many cookbooks out there so competition is tough. It can definitely be done, and now self-publishing makes it easier than ever. But it’s key to find a way to stand out so that you can define your market, your audience, your niche. Are you writing about a specific regional cuisine? A specific diet? Baked goods? Meat dishes? I know one woman who specializes in cult-TV and film cookbooks – she has self-published numerous books including one about food inspired by Dr. Who and one inspired by The Hobbit. That’s a very specific niche, and obviously you don’t have to do something that unusual, but it makes her stand out.
What is your biggest piece of advice for someone who dreams of writing a cookbook, but is overwhelmed with the process?
Don’t be in a hurry. Figure out your niche. If you’re not sure what it is, start a food blog (if you don’t have one already), and in time you’ll be able to see what you most enjoy writing about. If you’re already at the writing stage, do your research. Test every recipe because the slightest mistake can throw off a dish and your credibility. And I cannot overemphasize the importance of good food photos.
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?
Most of the recipes in my book picked themselves because they are such key traditional Kentucky foods so I was guided very much by the history. But I think the process of writing the book also helped to choose. The more you write, the more you will get a sense of what is a good fit.
As for whether people who buy the book will like the recipes, that’s not something you can guarantee. You cannot know what people will like; all you can do is test your recipes carefully, and write the best book you can.
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?”.