I’ll begin this blog post by serving up a link to an excellent piece of writing by a young fellow from the U.K. who was sitting next to me during one of the lively panels at the excellent two-day Roger Smith Cookbook Conference I attended recently in New York.
While I scribbled away using the old-school journo’s tools of the trade – a pen and paper – he, Nick Robinson, was calmly taking notes on some kind of tablet, checking in with Twitter and probably his e-mail at the same time.
We had a brief chat, exchanged cards and, upon my return, began following each other on Twitter and connected on LinkedIn.
Much of the talk at the conference, not surprisingly, was about the future of books in general and cookbooks in particular. I knew about ebooks, have friends who use kindles and have heard of apps (I know, that’s hard for some to believe) but am new to the concepts of “enhanced ebooks”, “the reflowable ebook” and “bundling”, all of which are, say publishers, agents, booksellers and others in the know, the next big things.
Nick writes about this better than I could and here’s the link.
The conference is named for the Roger Smith Hotel where it took place: a funky old establishment with two teeny elevators and vintage, shabby-chic decor, located on Lexington Ave. between 47th and 48th St.
The sold-out event consisted of panels that ran three at a time throughout the two days with wine and nibblies at noisy, sardine-packed soirees in the hotel’s compact cafe area each evening.
It was lots of fun chatting with the mainly young crowd of 100+ attendees. Many were endeavouring to break into the competitive world of culinary communication by blogging. Many were aspiring cookbook authors.
Panels were of assorted ages. Most were movers and shakers among America’s – for the most part, New York’s – culinary, literary and other food media types.
Here are some highlights from the panels I attended:
Eat and be Satisfied: Jewish Cookbooks Past, Present and Future
Mitchell Davis, a Canadian now living in New York and working for the James Beard Foundation, entertained us with his chosen theme: Jew Food and the Challenge of writing a Cross-Over Jewish Cookbook. The term “Jew food”, Mitchell’s proposed title for his most recent book was considered politically incorrect and thus nixed in Favour of The Mensch Chef, a spoof on Julia Child’s The French Chef.
The first Jewish cookbooks to appear in America were kosher, emphasized thrift and were written by housewives. Among early titles and one of the most successful is one of my most treasured books given to me by my mother many moons ago: The Settlement Cookbook. “It was not kosher,” said Mitchell of this 1901 tome, “and became less Jewish with each edition.”
Predicting Future Trends from Current Data
Chaired capably by feisty New York agent Lisa Ekus, this panel discussed some of the issues addressed in Nick Robinson’s blog cited above.
Book topics that are currently hot: 10-minute appetizers; dessert pops (any confection on a stick); doughnuts; healthy food; flexatarianism; back to basics; budgeting; ethnic food.
Panelists agreed that the use of apps for recipes is a big trend. They urged food media to “take their passion to the social media.” One panelist advised “writing two good blogs a week, not four bad ones.”
Pointers from Lisa for would-be authors: “Decide where your heart is. The best books are written by a passionate, knowledgeable person.” Then, as an aside, “There’s a lot of fake passion in social media.”
She also said, “Don’t be afraid of working with a small publisher. Look outside the mainstream. I love university presses.” Generalists, she notes, are having a hard time so, “find your niche.”
As for marketing, bundling (buy a book and some version of the ebook is free) and the sale of cookbooks in supermarkets and cooking stores like Williams-Sonoma are definitely growing trends.
Brave New World: Who Needs an Old-Fashioned Literary Agent?
The mostly young and darn smart bunch of women on this panel were impressive in advocating that the answer to the above question is a resounding “Everyone.”
Chaired by Sharon Bowers of The Miller Agency, they claimed that agents are becoming more, not less, relevant. She said: “Ultimately, real books will go away, as we know them. They’ll be like the wood-stove.” In this rapidly changing environment agents fulfill an important role in “getting the best deals for clients. We’re creating a new language every day.”
She cited “new frontiers. There are things like enhanced ebooks and apps for which publishers must pay extra.”
Agents can also put chef/authors together with a writer, recipe developer and photographer. The key, all agreed, is for an author to have a voice and concept. Personality and storytelling are key. The rest can be developed.
Happily, all endorsed my requirement of a cookbook: That the recipes be good and that they work.
The Cookbook Editor’s Role
I attended this panel for one reason: To hear and meet Judith Jones, until recently a senior editor and vice president at Alfred A. Knopf but, most famously, the woman who discovered Julia Child.
If you saw the film Julie and Julia, a young Judith Jones received the manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking after it had been refused by others in America and realized she was onto something.
“Julia was so visceral,” said Ms. Jones who is now in her late 80s, obviously savouring the memory of her dear friend and giving an example. “When someone asked Julia why she massaged a chicken before cooking it, she replied: ‘I think the chicken likes it.'”
“It’s a different world out there now,” Judith continued, “but it’s still about connecting with each other.”
She has little time for food television or the cult of celebrity chefs. “Chefs ruling the world of food is nonsense. They get signed up for a cookbook and someone else writes it.”
She likes to be hands-on as an editor: “When I did a book with Lidia Bastianich, she came with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend and we spent three wonderful days together cooking and eating.” She calls such collaboration “an intimate working relationship.”
Judith admits things are changing in the cookbook world. “We have to work with what’s happening. The cookbook is still an imperfect tool. I’m all for ways we can enhance cookbooks but I still want to take it to bed with me.”
Last but not least, she concluded: “Publishing isn’t really a business – it’s a hobby.”
My Audio Interview with Judith Jones
The day after the conference ended, I found myself at Judith Jones’s Upper East Side apartment, microphone in hand. That interview will be part of a podcast soon to be posted on this site. And look for an imminent blog post about that amazing experience.
The Conference Cookbook
Conference organizers – a diligent, friendly lot who did an excellent job – had a great idea – to seize the day and put together a cookbook called The Cookbook Lovers’ Cookbook (well-priced at $15 U.S.) comprising recipes from participating foodies.
I am currently working my way through it and will share more happy discoveries in this blog as I do.
I couldn’t resist this one mainly because of the appealing name. It is from cookbook author, blogger and former executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine Pam Anderson who came up with it by adapting a popular cassoulet recipe from her book Perfect One-Dish Dinners. It did not disappoint.
Shove-it-in-the-Oven Chicken Stew
This is a cinch to make and delicious. If your potatoes are large or even medium in size, cut them in smallish chunks so they cook through. I used fresh thyme leaves instead of dried tarragon.
2 lb/1 kilo boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut in large pieces
1 1/2 lb/750g baby new potatoes, halved
1 large onion, cut in chunks
1 lb/500g portobello or brown mushrooms, cut in chunks or halved
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp dried tarragon or thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup (35%) whipping or (18%) table cream
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
Preheat oven to 425F.
Distribute chicken, potatoes, onion, mushrooms and garlic in large roasting pan. Add olive oil and tarragon; stir to combine. Sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper. Roast in oven about 45 minutes or until potatoes are soft.
Transfer roasting pan to top of stove over two burners set on on medium-low. Stir in chicken stock, cream and mustard. Simmer to heat through and blend flavours, a couple of minutes.
Garnish with chopped fresh parsley and serve with crusty bread and a tossed salad.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.