what goes on behind the scenes of a cookbook?
Books don’t come out of nowhere. I have never thought, ‘Oh, time for another one, what should I write about next?’ They always grow out of something in my life.
Food from Plenty came out of a particular time. I started writing it pre-credit crunch, but a feeling that we had to tighten belts (and value our food more) was already in the air. Salt, Sugar, Smoke was the result of an obsessive interest in preserving, a personal desire to be able to do it better and to understand the science of it. And it allowed me to try out ideas for jam and jelly recipes I’d had in my head for a long time. Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, my first book, was the result of years (including many when I wasn’t a food writer) of collecting recipes from areas of the world – the Middle East, North Africa – that had fascinated me since childhood. It was meant to convey the magic of ingredients and dishes that were, to me, rather otherworldly. Cook Simple was the fruit of a new attitude towards cooking I developed – of necessity – when I had my first child. There’s a lot of bunging things in the oven. It isn’t quick cooking, but it is effortless cooking.
My new book, A Change of Appetite, came about for several reasons. First I noticed that both friends and readers were asking me what they could do to eat more ‘healthily’. They wanted to increase their intake of vegetables. They needed ideas for what to do with plain bits of protein, a tuna steak or a turkey breast, as they were rapidly running out of inspiration. Since their daily diets sounded at best puritan and at worst grim, I felt I had to come to the rescue. Then my doctor, alarmed at my blood pressure, told me to lose weight and I didn’t want to revert to yo-yo dieting. Finally my father, completely out of the blue, was diagnosed with cancer. After years of rolling my eyes when anyone mentioned ‘healthy eating’, I decided to find out what, exactly, the term meant.
It sounds a bit pretentious to say that books develop organically, but they do. First you get the kernel of an idea, then you start to talk about it to friends and family. Are they interested in the same area? Do they need information on it? Would it excite them? You approach the whole thing as if you were making a scrapbook (I used to do lots of projects in scrapbooks as a child and this really isn’t much different). You start to read. With A Change of Appetite I started first with food journalist Hattie Ellis’ book How to Eat. Then I got stuck into The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman’s book Food Matters. By the time I’d finished these two I was hooked on the subject. With this book in particular, the research stretched ahead almost limitlessly, but you eventually have to call time on it.
But cookbooks are not just information. At the same time as I was researching I was thinking about dishes. This is something that goes on all the time. Sometimes I can’t get to sleep because I get stuck in a groove with a certain ingredient, or food from a particular place. I write these down – I have notebooks all over the place and make long lists on the computer – and then I come back to them for pieces and for books. Ideas for dishes come out of travelling, too. In Iceland over the summer I made pages and pages of notes. The dishes I was coming up with weren’t Icelandic, of course, but they had Icelandic flavours. You get inspired by the foods that dominate; in Iceland, for example, it was cod, dill, oats, beer and, a surprise to me, liquorice. Texture was a big thing there, too. It is partly because of the landscape, which is incredibly varied (so you think about texture all the time). Countries that don’t have a great reputation for food can be the most inspiring. I have a long list of dishes that I thought up in Estonia, for example, that haven’t yet seen the light of day.
The content and the recipes develop alongside each other. You narrow the book’s focus, make it more exact, change and refine it as you research. Often your whole take hasn’t been arrived at until the end. The book is the journey as well as the destination. (That’s why I often write the introduction last.) When I have gathered everything in I can explain why the material is there within the book’s pages.
As well as background research and recipe ideas the most nebulous and exciting part of a book is bubbling away, as if it’s almost underground, the whole time. It’s the feel you want the book to have. This is the hardest thing to articulate. And it’s difficult to pin down as it doesn’t yet exist. I often think it’s like grappling with a fish. You can see it and it’s sparkling and alive and gasping for air but you can’t quite get hold of it. Every so often you have to make yourself stop the research and just look at pictures, searching for those that express moods or a certain feel. I go through magazines, search the internet, go to films and exhibitions that have absolutely nothing to do with food. I pull out lots of bits of reference – even bits of paper with a certain texture – and gradually put these all together.
With my first books I used to collate these on to mood boards. I stuck lots of pictures and examples of fonts on to big sheets of black card. Now I don’t do the sticking bit. I go through them with my designer, Miranda Harvey – she brings her pictures too – and we wrestle the book into life. We talk a lot about light and texture. We talk a lot full stop, even though what we are trying to find can’t exactly be articulated. We also see the photographer, Laura Edwards, show her what we’re thinking about and get her take on it too. This, for me, is the most exciting bit of any book. I used to produce and direct TV programmes so my job was very collaborative and visual. This part of making books allows me to go back to that for periods. Sharing the creativity gives me a real buzz. I find it addictive. I have worked with Miranda since my very first book so we can finish each other’s sentences, can communicate without even speaking (sometimes just pointing at fabrics is enough) and we know each other’s taste very well. Books become part of you, and you of them, and it helps enormously to build them with someone who understands your take on things, who ‘gets’ you.
A book needs to have its own world. It isn’t just pages and words. It should never be ‘flat’, it must lure you in and jump up to grab you. You have to find a style that reflects the content. That is why successive books are different to the previous ones.
If you’ve done lots of books they also have to stay within the same ‘family’ (at least that’s what I think). They have to have your stamp on them, even though they cover very different subjects and have different worlds. That is achieved mainly by the designer. We tend to think that design in books is all about innovation and colour and image. Actually mine are all about type and space. And this bit is out of my domain. Miranda sends me lots of possibilities for the page design and I know what I like and don’t like, but I haven’t a clue how she does this. I choose on instinct. She is also very good at making my books seem accessible. My books are full of material, lots of extra bits tacked on to recipes, long introductions. They’re dense. They could easily be off-putting. But they never feel like that. That’s the work of a supremely talented designer.
Let’s go back to the text for a bit. Once I’ve made long lists of dishes I would like to include I print these out and get friends and my editor, Lucy Bannell, to look at them. One of the reasons I pass them round friends is to see which dishes grab them. I always have about three times more material than there is room for. But friends can do the ‘flick test’ for you. The flick test is something I do myself, as I’m a big cookbook buyer. It’s when you stand in a book shop flicking through a book. If, on the flick test, you find enough dishes you just can’t resist, you’ll buy the book. If it doesn’t pass the flick test, you’ll put it back on the shelf.
As well as the recipes you have to decide what you are going to write – chapter openers, perhaps ‘essays’ that punctuate the text – and this bit is hard. Every bit of writing encroaches on the recipes, and you don’t want to get rid of too many (I hate to see them go). Every book has a different balance of writing to recipes. When Lucy and I have decided what is going into the book we decide which are the best dishes to photograph and she makes a flatplan, a spread of where everything slots in (a head-spinning job and I’m glad I don’t have to do it). Sometimes I don’t think a dish is good enough once I’ve worked on it, or I think of another that is better. Then the flatplan is rejigged.
The recipe testing is in many ways the most straightforward part of a cookbook. You just get on and cook. I always intend to do this neatly, keeping notes in a big book. In reality I am always grabbing used envelopes and bits of scrap paper. People ask how the testing is done and the answer is very boring, I literally stand there and measure everything as it’s used and scribble it down. If I’m being sensible I transfer it immediately to the laptop once I’m done. I never write down the recipe method, I’ll remember it, but I need to note down each spoonful and every gram. Sometimes I get distracted or the doorbell rings and I can’t remember whether I used 2 tbsp or 3 tbsp of something. That means that it has to be done again. More than once I have looked into the bin when I was testing at 2am to see how many eggs I have used by counting the shells. And don’t even get me on to the washing up. That is easily the worst part of my job.
The writing is quite straightforward too, at least once you’ve done the research. You just have to get down to it. What I will say is that when the writing is going badly – I can’t get the structure of a chapter introduction right – I move to the sofa. A desk or table can sometimes make you feel under pressure. But if you relax, it comes to you more easily. I like writing in the middle of the night for the same reason. The middle of the night is bonus time. If you don’t get going, never mind, nobody expects you to work in the middle of the night. This is the attitude that allows your mind to be freed up. It’s very quiet too. And there is literally nothing else I ought to be doing (no washes to go into the machine, no childrens’ homework). If you’re on a really good run you can keep writing until it gets light. Then you tumble into bed happy. (At least until the children wake you an hour and a half later.)
The recipes and the rest of the writing go through to Lucy as I complete it, then queries come back. It is essential to get all these sorted, but they’re not a joy. You are made to be exact. You’ve said ‘cook over a medium heat until golden’. Your editor will ask you how long that takes. Some things are particularly difficult. I remember trying to explain how to make a bistilla, a Moroccan filo pie. Anything that has layers and turns is difficult to explain. You, as the writer, try to be as exact and succinct as possible. The editor makes you be even more so. The editing process is long and protracted but you do want people to cook your recipes and have them turn out right. It is one of the most important things about a cookbook (if not the most important thing). It is brilliant if your editor is a very knowledgeable cook (mine is). They know what you are talking about, and they will also catch slip-ups (you can easily type out the wrong oven temperature, or write 20g instead of 120g and, if they cook, they’ll notice it).
Alongside the writing are the shoots. There are 7-10 shoot days on my books depending on the length and they are really where the book is made. This is where you give it its identity, its feel. Miranda and I have our favourite plates and tablecloths that crop up in nearly every book. But with each one the tone changes slightly so we make a different selection (I am always buying new stuff; I don’t like the books to be full of dishes that aren’t used in real life, I like them to be lived in and with). One of the things we have said from our earliest days on books together is that there is great beauty in the ordinary, in the domestic. I think part of our job is to show that what is around in your kitchen or on your table is more lovely than you might have noticed.
In A Change of Appetite, the food is very clean so we didn’t want anything cluttered. As it’s about health we also wanted it to feel airy, we wanted the pictures to express the vitality that is in the food. Coloured plates were more or less banished. A lot of the food was very colourful and visual – little coloured leaves, flower petals – and we didn’t want that fighting with crockery.
What is really hard, on a food shoot, is to make the food seem alive. You are taking pictures in a false situation – in the sense that you’re not really having dinner with this food – and you are also trying to make the food look both real and so beautiful that the reader wants to create it.
Some pictures come about very easily. With others it’s a struggle. I’ve had images in my head – there’s a double page spread in Salt Sugar Smoke of a Russian feast – that work exactly the way I visualized them, and others that don’t work at all and you really don’t know why. Everybody makes the pictures: Joss Herd, who cooks the food on the shoots, Laura the photographer, me and Miranda. We know when we get it right as a ripple goes round the room. I am slightly in awe of food photographers. Sometimes the plate of food looks quite ordinary, but Laura brings something else to it, moves it slightly, changes its position. Once she puts a new picture up on her laptop screen we gather round. That’s a good bit. Sometimes there’s even a bit of whooping if we’re especially pleased. Then it’s on to the next dish.
Joss is very important because I don’t know anyone else who makes food look so alive; her dishes have real movement. I am not bad at putting food on plates but she does something that’s hard to define. Her salads look as if they could take flight. She studied fine art and it shows. We don’t use any tricks though (I am not sure anyone does any more) and there isn’t a lot of mucking about with tweezers and cotton buds. Joss puts it on the plate – beautifully – and then it is shot (and then we eat it for lunch).
As the shoots progress we all look at the pictures – Miranda slots small versions of them into a flatplan – to see if we are getting it right. TS Eliot wrote, ‘We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.’ This is true.
Once all the photos are shot they are processed by Laura and sent to Miranda, with Lucy’s edited text. Miranda then fits it all together. If bits have to be cut then the editor does that. I never know what Lucy has cut, which is one of the signs of a good editor. After this, I don’t see the material again until we have the page proofs. Lucy and I spend hours going through these, separately and together, marking corrections. Later we are the last people to see the corrected proofs when we go through the whole process again. This is the kind of ‘tired but happy’ phase. We’ve done it, we’re nearly there, but you still have to be eagle-eyed and careful. Funny enough, even though we spend long days doing this, we don’t cook. We order Indian takeaways. We don’t drink alcohol either until we’re near the end, in case we miss something.
Describing all this makes the whole process seem smooth and clear-cut, but it doesn’t feel like that at the time. It’s bitty. Plus, normally I have three books going in my head at once. There is always one I am working at on a day-to-day basis, one that I’m working on part of the time (travelling and doing background reading) and another that is taking shape (kernel stage). Sometimes books come together quickly but I’m working on one right now that has been on the go, on and off, for the last 10 years. It requires a lot of travel so has to be fitted in (and paid for) over a long period. It’s good when you have a book like this – it kind of grows with you.
What’s the best thing about producing these books? Apart from having a book at the end of it all, something you can actually hold and read and cook from, it’s the creativity that you share with other people. And it’s the joy that comes from making something with people who are perfectionist. I am amazed by how much people care about their work and by how talented they are. It really moves me. When I worked in television everyone’s name was on the credits. The producer’s is usually last but every single person gets a mention. It never seems fair that only the name of the author is on the front of a book. A book is never just written. It is made.