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Articles & Essays

"You buy the book, I'll bring the food"

Published 10/07/12
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

It occurred to me recently that Ken Follett probably doesn’t try to write his next book while waiting for his oven timer to go off. And that all that Stephen King has to take to author talks is his talent and a working voice, not a pound cake.

But when you write about food, people expect you to come with edible accessories.

My rapier-like wit and sparkling personality aren’t sufficient. Folks want to be sure that I know what I’m doing by actually tasting the food I’ve written about in cookbooks. Imagine that.

Only a week after my latest, “Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook,” came out, I was wrapping the second pound cake for the freezer, and had moved on to the third or fourth batch of blue cheese dressing (I’ve already lost count). Luckily, no one has figured out that my freezer is full of goodies and conducted a raid. Well, ‘til now. I’m installing a lock right away.

I’m not complaining. In the book biz, busy equals sales, you hope. It’s just that making stuff in the kitchen doesn’t always feel like work in the sense of getting writing work done. Although it is work. Plenty of work.

I like to feed people, am proud of what I create and am glad to share it. It just seems like the workload among writing genres is a little skewed.

Do novelists work as hard as food writers? Let’s look at the evidence, shall we?

Here’s how I prepare for a book signing:

At least one trip to the grocery store followed by four to five hours of mixing, chopping, cooking, packaging and cleaning up after it all, then getting decently dressed and checking my hair for stray cake batter.

How novelists prepare:

Wake up. Get in car. Punch the bookstore’s address into the GPS.

Here’s what I take to a book signing:           

Paper plates, napkins, wet wipes, paper towels, forks or spoons, serving plate or bowl, trash bag, tablecloth, cooler (if the recipe needs refrigeration during the trip to the store) and samples in disposable containers, because it’s nice to leave any leftovers for the hardworking bookstore staff. If the signing is outdoors at such a spot as a farmers market, I add a folding chair, bottled water and sunscreen. And my lucky pen, naturally. I used the same pen through three books, and when it sprang apart in a tragic ballpoint explosion, I replaced it with an identical one. Coaches aren’t the only superstitious people.

What novelists take:

A pen. But that’s optional. Bookstores have plenty of Sharpies.

Also, I’d like to see King discuss his latest novel while preparing coleslaw on camera and amusing a pair of TV hosts. In three minutes.

I’m a credentialed three-minute coleslaw maker, and have a certificate from the media training for a previous book to prove it. I spent a full day learning how to talk and cook at the same time while never turning full profile to the camera. If the trainer had thrown in mastering chewing gum and walking, I’d be coordinated enough for “Dancing With the Stars.”

Thanks to the popularity of chefs on TV shows, it’s not enough anymore to just make good food. WIth that hair and voice, I don’t think Julia Child would get a spatula in the door if she pitched a TV cooking show today.

But novelists are allowed, even expected, to look disheveled, as if they just stumbled out of the world of deep thought and happened to show up at the bookstore. A certain amount of eccentricity is OK, because they are Creative People, and one cannot expect Creative People to operate on the same frequency as the rest of us.

On a midnight visit to William Faulkner’s grave in Oxford, Miss. with several friends, I thanked him for living his writer’s life in a way that has excused bad behavior in authors since - fiction authors, that is. We cookbook authors are a blend of the practical and the creative that requires us to work on a different level. We feel responsible. We must clean up after ourselves.

You would want to have a drink with Faulkner but might think twice about letting him loose in your kitchen to make dinner.

When I picked up the bottle of bourbon to toast old Bill, I realized that, for once, someone else brought the refreshments.

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