Why on earth did I decide to write a book about pasta? Why pick such a well-trodden subject? Or, to put the question in more general terms, how do you take a subject that has been written about–a lot–and make it new?
I considered this question recently in an essay I wrote for WORDS, the quarterly newsletter published by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. I also posed the question to three award-winning cookbook authors whose work I respect and admire. Here’s the essay; consider it a little food for thought…
Four Perspectives on Getting and Staying Inspired
I did not plan to write a book about pasta. The idea came from my publisher and I was skeptical. Did the world, I wondered, need another cookbook on pasta? (The answer, by the way, is “Yes.”)
I like a good challenge and so that’s how I decided to approach this book. As I dove in, I quickly remembered what it is I love about writing cookbooks—the process of discovery and rediscovery, of finding something fresh in a subject both well loved and well mined.
Research for The Glorious Pasta of Italy took me back to Abruzzo, where I’d spent many childhood summers, and which turns out some of the world’s best pasta. The trip did not begin auspiciously. My family and I had rented a small house in an unfamiliar corner of the region, a house reachable only by driving deep into a valley on a one-lane gravel road. We arrived late at night, during a torrential rainstorm. The valley looked like it might flood, and when we got to the house the power was out.
The next morning, discouraged, we drove into town. One thing led to another (as they do in Italy) and within a half-hour we had met a fellow who turned out to be an expert on the area’s culinary specialties. By the end of the week I had a wealth of new recipes and ideas, and—even better—new friends, including a number of young Italian cooks working hard to preserve tradition while breathing new life into the local food scene. As we drove out of the valley, I felt like I was emerging from someplace far away and magical. I couldn’t wait to shine a light on this lovely corner of the world and to connect readers and cooks with this place.
The world of food writing has changed dramatically, and there is much talk about the demise of cookbooks, talk I prefer to ignore. We are now forced to think about SEO and site stats and numbers of Twitter followers. These things may matter, but honestly, they don’t motivate me. What does motivate me are those moments I described above.
I am not the only one who feels this way, either, so I wanted to discover how other writers approach their material, and get and stay inspired. I talked to three authors whose work I admire and whom I consider great role models: baking expert Nancy Baggett; French cooking and baking authority Dorie Greenspan; and vegetable maven Mollie Katzen. Here (condensed) are some insights they shared with me.
Nancy Baggett, author most recently of Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Yeast Breads (Wiley, 2009):
* Never stop researching. Baggett’s books and recipes often delve into history, but she is always looking ahead. “I’m always researching,” Baggett says. “I just find the store of knowledge that one can amass endless—and endlessly fascinating.” Right now, Baggett is experimenting with unusual flavor combinations in baking—like rosemary or sage with cranberries or apricots in a sweet bread. “Everything is grist for the mill,” she says, “whether it’s going out to a farmers’ market and talking to vendors, or trying something at a restaurant and thinking about how you might do it differently, or even better.”
* “Nothing is unique” is a phrase Baggett deplores. Take classic shortbread, she says. “It has four, maybe five ingredients. Well, do you cut in the butter or do you soften it and beat it in? Do you make your shortbread thick or thin? What about oven temperature—that makes a huge difference.” She adds, “If you think nothing is unique, you’re missing part of the enormous pleasure of creating and learning and doing.”
Dorie Greenspan, author most recently of Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010):
* Write for yourself, but also write for your audience. “When I write recipes I feel like I’m teaching, so even if I’ve written a recipe before I’m always thinking about how to teach someone how to do it.” The headnotes in her new book are personal and many contain stories. “That’s for me,” she says. “I want to have fun writing headnotes, but of course I also want to bring people in.”
* Get personal. “Twenty years ago, as a brand-new writer with a first cookbook, I was very tentative,” Greenspan says. “And for years after that I didn’t have the opportunity because I was writing books with others” including Julia Child and Chef Pierre Hermé. “It takes confidence to write personally,” Greenspan says, “and it was really with Paris Sweets that I could start to write my own story.”
* Learn from your readers. Greenspan has a huge following in the blogosphere of people who cook from her books and write about it. “I’ve learned from them, and when I was writing Around My French Table I thought about them and what they had told me about what they learned and what they had problems with, and I kept them in mind as I was working on recipes.”
Mollie Katzen, author most recently of Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen (William Morrow, 2009):
* Ask what is needed. “I choose my subjects very carefully,” Katzen says. “I never want to write anything that’s not needed. I’m very dedicated to teaching children how to cook. When I started writing books for kids I had no interest in writing a cute, fake kids’ cookbook. I wanted to write something that really addressed their motor skills, attention span, reading skills, and their taste. I don’t want my cookbooks to be souvenirs. I want them to get spilled on.”
* It’s not all about inspiration. It takes a lot of work to write a cookbook, Katzen says. “I don’t do it because I wake up in the morning and want to go chase rainbows. I do it because it’s my job and I have a family to support.” And also because she loves teaching people how to cook. “I’m thrilled at the prospect that people will learn to cook from my books. I take that extremely seriously.”
* Believe in the importance of home cooking. “There is transformative potential in home cooking,” she says. “I believe that with all my heart. It gives my life meaning. It’s part of being human, and it’s a very deep sense of that that drives me.”
For me, it comes down to an abiding love for good food and for the written word, whether it’s in a book or a blog. Call me naïve—you would not be the first—but I hope it never becomes just about numbers.
What motivates you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.