Culinate editor’s note: As faithful readers of Portland’s daily newspaper, the Oregonian, and particular fans of its food section, Foodday, we’re pleased about the publication of a new book this month, The Oregonian Cookbook.
Finally, we’ll be able to get rid of that big stack of old, yellowed clippings we’ve been holding on to — some for, well, decades. But also, we’ll now have recipes by many of our favorite local writers and chefs (some of national renown) gathered in one place.
Kudos goes to Katherine Miller, Foodday’s editor, who assembled the new collection. When we asked Miller if she might give us just a peek behind the curtain of this monumental project, she sent along this reflection.
Anyone who loves cooking knows that creating an original recipe can be as satisfying and joyful as any other creative act, whether it’s writing a short story, painting a landscape, or playing a musical instrument. Perhaps that’s why so many cookbooks are published every year. As a longtime food editor, I’ve seen hundreds of such books land on my desk.
With so much volume, I’ve learned how to rapidly evaluate a book. Sometimes all I need are a few seconds of perusing before tossing the book into the reject bin. These are often vanity projects, such as Ricky Lauren’s book on entertaining in the Hamptons, or books on fad diets or gimmicks, like the bewildering one based on “The Hunger Games.”
Other books warrant a longer look, such as an oversized coffee-table book filled with glossy photos. Closer inspection reveals lots of intricately styled dishes made from recipes that require an army of sous-chefs to pull off. And so into the give-away pile it goes.
But for all of the books that get rejected, there are just as many that are original, thoughtfully written, and filled with appealing recipes that make me want to call in sick at the office, trot into the kitchen, and cook the day away.
In addition to well-written recipes, the best cookbooks have voice and personality that make me want to befriend the authors, whether or not I ever cook from their books. You may not consider yourself a fan of Paula Deen, Emeril Lagasse, or Rachael Ray, but you can’t deny that their folksy enthusiasm is a big part of their success.
The same can be said of a book: the best ones grab your attention. Some of these books are lucky enough to be reviewed in newspapers or magazines, or on blogs or websites. Others end up as reference works on an editor’s bookshelf, where they provide service for several years until they’re culled to make room for new titles. A very few will become classics and keep their place of honor for a lifetime or longer.
The churn of new titles is astonishing — not because there are so many talented authors, but because getting published can be hard. Television chefs, plus award-winning writers such as Grace Young, Dorie Greenspan, and Mark Bittman, have it much easier, since publishers love a guaranteed audience. The rest struggle with finding an agent and a publisher and getting a sufficient advance; they often have to pay for their own recipe testing, photography, and marketing.
Sometimes it’s a matter of good luck. Recently, I was approached by a Portland-based book packager, Carpe Diem, about putting together a cookbook that coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Oregonian’s food section, Foodday. Suddenly, I became the creator, not the weary critic.
While our partnership has been mutually supportive and rewarding, every project has its challenges, and our biggest was time: I had just four months to complete a manuscript. Fortunately, I was blessed with a capable and willing colleague who took over daily production of the food section so I could devote all my time to working on the book, which started with selecting recipes.
After inviting readers, staff, and former staff to nominate their favorites, we ended up with several hundred choices, which had to be winnowed down to 350. Many dishes that were well-known among staff were slam-dunk winners. But while I’ve been at Foodday a long time, I personally hadn’t tasted every recipe we ran in the newspaper. (In the early 1990s, when I first joined the Oregonian, the food section was typically 20 pages, much longer than today.) This meant that for the cookbook, I had to test those dishes that I had never tried. By day I edited; after office hours, I shopped and cooked. My long-suffering husband served as my guinea pig, eating a different recipe every night.
Not all of the nominated recipes were great. In fact, I quickly found that there was a wide range of what constituted “good.” In the end, my palate was the one that had to be happy, and so, of the dishes I tested, about a fourth were rejected.
Another challenge was taking 350 recipes — the vast majority from different recipe writers — and trying to give them a unified voice. I updated many and rewrote all the headnotes. Unlike a book about, say, whoopie pies or Spanish cuisine, The Oregonian Cookbook had to appeal to a general audience and cover the gamut of recipes — meat and vegan, sophisticated and homey, local and ethnic.
Apart from the manuscript work, there were countless meetings with the publishers, publicist, and an occasional editor from the Oregonian to hash out one decision after another, from the book’s title, to its dimensions, to the cover image, to the color of the place-mark ribbon, to its font, to marketing plans.
In order to keep the book affordable, we needed to keep the page count to about 400 pages. And we felt that ultimately readers were more interested in recipes than photos, and so we limited them.
It was just one of the compromises that had to be made for time and budget. And these compromises kept me up at night. I quickly learned how other authors must feel, putting their work and egos on the line. What will readers think of the book? What will my colleagues think? And the reviewers?
Once I was a detached and severe reviewer making snap judgments without knowing a book’s backstory. Now that I’m on the other side, I can’t help but feel more compassion and respect.
But if any publishers are reading this, be warned: Cookbooks based on “Harry Potter” or the raw-food diet are still going to go immediately into the reject bin. Some things don’t change.
Portland writer and editor Katherine Miller joined the Oregonian’s Foodday staff in 1990, and in 1999 was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award for news reporting. Her love of cooking, farmers markets, and dining out was sparked by early visits to her grandparents’ rural Virginia home, and a year living in the Haute-Savoie region of France.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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