Substack Podcast #021: Cookbooks with Paula Forbes

  
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We spoke with Paula Forbes of Stained Page News, a newsletter about cookbooks. For her, it’s a place to geek out about cookbooks - where she can write about news, recipes, and upcoming releases.

Paula has a multifaceted view of the culinary world. She worked as a professional cookbook critic for over a decade, writing for publications like Eater, Epicurious, Lucky Peach, and Food 52. She also has a background in cooking for restaurants, and in 2008 she published her own cookbook, The Austin Cookbook.

We talked about the worlds of food blogging and cookbook writing, what makes a good cookbook, and what it was like for Paula to write her own cookbook after years of reviewing them.

Links

Highlights

  • (2:23) Paula’s writing journey, from writing cookbook reviews to blogging to starting her newsletter 

  • (12:38) Why people buy cookbooks, even though so many recipes are online now

  • (18:42) How the 2008 recession coincided with the rise of food bloggers

  • (25:44) Paula’s favorite types of cookbooks, and the overall qualities that make good cookbooks 

  • (37:34) The process of writing a cookbook 

On similarities between cooking and writing:

The feeling you get from cooking in a restaurant and writing a solid blog post that goes up really quickly is very similar to me. A very speedy, quick strategy is involved. You have to be very efficient.

On having a community of newsletter readers:

I think that in the grand scheme of things, you're never going to make it rich with a cookbook website or TV show. But being able to focus on a self-selecting audience who has said, "Okay, I'm interested in this topic. I'm interested in cookbooks. I want to hear what you have to say about them.” It amplifies what you're saying so much more.

On the process of writing a cookbook:

It's a hell of a process. You have to be so organized and you have to be just on top of everything. It's so much more data than just writing the text of the thing. Cookbooks are so much work and I have so much respect for anyone who tries to write one.


Transcript

Nadia (00:22):

We see a lot of food writers on Substack, but your publication, Stained Page News, stood out to me because you're specifically focused on cookbooks - which just said to me that this person isn't just really into food as a broader topic, but you have this truly geeky obsession with cookbooks specifically that I really want to hear more about. How did you come to fall in love with this topic?

Paula (00:44):

Way back when I graduated from college, I originally thought that I wanted to go to grad school and go into academia. And what I wanted to do was ... This was not really a thing that existed then, but I wanted to look at food cultural history of the 20th century through the lens of books as a literature.

Paula (01:19):

I applied to grad school a bunch of times and didn't get in because people kept saying, "You're a great candidate, but we don't have anyone here who can help you study that." So, in the meantime, I started writing book reviews, freelance, for a Typepad blog because this was what, 2007, 2008? And then later for outlets and I've been covering cookbooks ever since.

Nadia (01:52):

Wow, this got me even more excited about this topic. So, you really are coming at it from a researcher mindset way back in the day of wanting to just understand cookbooks as a genre, it sounds like, before you got into writing. You mentioned writing on a blog in the early days and then writing professionally and now you have a newsletter on Substack - how does that experience of early blogging compare to writing today?

Paula (02:23):

That's why I started the newsletter, it’s because I missed blogging. So, I started writing cookbook reviews and later just about everything else for a blog called Eat Meat Daily that no longer exists. And they looked at the liberal arts of food. It was art, it was film, it was books. And just generally weird stuff with a good sense of humor.

Paula (02:52):

So, I started there and that was a very late odds style blog. And then from there, I moved on to writing for Eater, which is a different style of blog.

Nadia (03:13):

So, for folks who haven't read Eater, can you tell us a little bit about how it's different?

Paula (03:23):

I can't really speak to their current style of blogging, but when I worked there, it was very quick hit news, re-blogs, everything with a sense of humor - sense of humor and a point of view of restaurant insiders. But the two were different and that one was very much ... Eater was very much volume-driven when I worked there, so it was very much get in, get out of the story. Get it up, have the best headline, that kind of thing.

Paula (04:02):

And I missed that. I also have a background in cooking in restaurants and the feeling you got from cooking in a restaurant and writing a really solid blog post that goes up quickly is very similar to me. A very speedy, quick strategy is involved. You have to be very efficient - so figuring out how to do that in my head scratches the itch of like, "Okay, now I'm working." And that doesn't really exist anymore in media, near as I can tell, at least not in my circles.

Paula (04:48):

So, I missed it. I missed talking about cookbook news which I didn't really see anyone doing. And I just started tweeting stuff. And then, people started picking up stuff I was tweeting and I was like, "Well, this is not great because I'm a freelance writer, and I would like to be making some money off of the scoops I'm finding." There is one in particular that was after Anthony Bourdain passed away.

Paula (05:29):

They announced that they were going to be publishing a book that he had been working on when he passed away. And so, I tweeted about it and everyone linked to the tweet. People magazine linked to the tweet. It was wild, and I was just like, "Why am I just throwing the stuff up on Twitter when I'd be writing it?" So, that's a very long way of saying that the newsletter scratches both the quick hit, how much information can you relay in one sentence thing that I got from blogging, and also fills the hole of the cookbook news that I wasn't seeing other places.

Nadia (06:14):

That makes sense. It sounds so simple but I feel like the addition of an email list really just changes that relationship. Even if you have a popular blog post and it goes super viral and everyone is reading it, you never really know who's on there and they kind of go off into the ether and do something else. But when you have a place for people to subscribe and get more of it, then it's you're actually building this relationship within an ongoing audience.

Paula (06:41):

Yeah, and especially with a topic like my topic which is so focused. I think that in the grand scheme of things, cookbooks are not ... You're never going to make it rich with a cookbook website or TV show or whatever but being able to focus it at a self-selecting audience who has said, "Okay, I'm interested in this topic. I'm interested in cookbooks. I want to hear what you have to say about them.” It amplifies what you're saying so much more.

Nadia (07:13):

I'm curious whether you feel like you've created a different sense of community because you're this independent writer at the center of your work versus writing about cookbooks and reviewing them on say Eater or Food 52’s communities.

Paula (07:29):

Gosh, not really. I don't allow comments on my newsletter.

Nadia (07:35):

Oh, interesting.

Paula (07:37):

So, I actually did on today's newsletter but it's a rarity for me. The newsletter management for me is very much about the path of least resistance in many ways. And it came down to: did I want to spend a ton of time moderating comments? And I've decided that that was not for me.

Nadia (08:03):

I really like that. I respect that. Actually, I noticed that you started writing Stained Page News a few years ago and then you went on hiatus and then you brought it back. And I just thought it was great because a lot of writers struggle with getting into this rhythm and feel maybe over-obligated to do more or maybe respond to or moderate comments or write all the time and consistently. Do you have any advice or learnings from this experience of being able to step away and come back again?

Paula (08:36):

Yeah. Gosh, how did that happen? I mean, the money is the big part of that, not to get into the weeds about the money - but as a freelancer, you can only spend so much time on things that don't pay. So that was part of why I stepped away, just I couldn't excuse it anymore. I couldn't make the time and I wasn't about to give up weekends or anything. You know, freelancers deserve downtime too.

Paula (09:07):

So, having an outlet where I could make some money off of it was honestly a huge, huge deal for me. I priced it pretty low, I think. It's five bucks a month and I did that specifically because I know that things come up where you can't do it occasionally and I didn't want people to feel like we're paying her 20 bucks a month or whatever it is, and then she doesn't write. That's not to say ... I write pretty much every week.

Paula (09:45):

But things come up. You get sick. You want to take a vacation, whatever. It's not going to happen every week, but I do think that if you're consistent in your publishing week to week, you will see it in open rates and you will see it in click-throughs and you will see it in the number of people who respond to the newsletter and it snowballs for sure.

Nadia (10:09):

You mentioned one of the reasons for stepping away is that you couldn't justify it as a non-paid thing you're doing versus the other paid work you had to focus on. Had you considered doing paid subscriptions previously? I know you did end up adding them when you moved to Substack.

Paula (10:28):

I didn't. It hadn't really occurred to me as an option. I had tried to figure out how to do affiliate links. Amazon doesn't let you do affiliate links and emails as I'm sure you know and people listening might not know. But I was doing a thing where I would send the email and then I would put the text of the newsletter on my website, but I really have to completely reformat it just so I can put in the Amazon links and then no one was ever using that.

Paula (11:01):

So, it's this huge thing and I was just like, "There's just no way. There's no way I'm ever going to be able to make money off of this." You all made the paid subscription thing really easy honestly.

Nadia (11:16):

How has having paid subscriptions changed your relationship with your writing if at all - since I imagine it does allow you to focus a little bit more time on that?

Paula (11:25):

Yeah. I feel a responsibility to my readers even though I tried to price it affordably. I'm never, ever, ever going to take for granted the fact that someone would give me money to read an email from me. So, I definitely take that into consideration. For example, recently, I used to send my newsletters Wednesdays and Fridays because new cookbooks come out on Tuesdays so I wanted it to be when books would come out and also that there had been articles written about the books would run Tuesday or Wednesday when food sections publish also.

Paula (12:11):

So, the Wednesday articles are the free article and the Friday issue was the paid and I was noticing that the Friday paid issue was kind of skimpy. So, I moved it to Tuesdays so that there would be more time and more time for things to happen so that I could give my paid subscribers a meatier issue every week.

Nadia (12:38):

That makes sense. I'd love to just dive into cookbooks themselves since we've been talking about you and your publication a bit, but you also write about this really fascinating topic that you have a lot of insight into. I would love to just maybe kick things off by talking about why people buy cookbooks.

Nadia (12:57):

I think about the cookbooks I've received from my mother. She loves cooking. I do too, and so food has become this way for us to bond - especially when I was younger and making that transition from angsty teenager to a person that my mother can actually converse with.

Nadia (13:13):

And so, my experience of cookbooks has been that they bring us closer to other people or remind us of a sense of place. Does that align with what you've seen? Why do people buy cookbooks in a world where so much cooking now happens through online recipes?

Paula (13:29):

Sure. I mean, gosh, I think there are tons of reasons why people buy cookbooks. Where do I start? So, first of all, I think that there are two different ways that people react or interact with cookbooks, which is that some people are very recipe-driven. I'm going to follow this recipe. I'm going to panic if I have parsley and not basil. I'm going to frantically text my friend, Paula, to see if I can cut it down to serve four instead of eight, that kind of thing, because I do get these texts.

Nadia (14:07):

You must be that person for all your friends.

Paula (14:11):

And then the other people who just glance at it and, "Oh, kale, potato, sausage soup, great." And just do whatever they want. So, I think you start there. So there's just two schools of people. The people who are real sticklers for the recipes are the people who are buying very generalist cookbooks. I'm talking about The Joy of Cooking or New York Times Cookbook, those kinds of things, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.

Paula (14:42):

But also a lot of the books that are like weeknight dinners, the healthy food that still tastes good, basic pastas, those kinds of things, things that are very action-oriented. So, those consumers of cookbooks, people who are like, "I'm buying this book because I literally want to make this thing for dinner."

Paula (15:04):

Then you have the other people who are buying them for inspiration for ideas, launch pads, and those are people who are maybe buying more restaurant books, international cookbooks, books that are very visual. There's also professionals buying cookbooks and there's also people who are buying them to read them as literature. And there are people who are buying them as status objects to have on their coffee table.

Paula (15:38):

And there are people who are buying them as souvenirs. I went to this restaurant on my vacation and then now I want their cookbook as a totem of that time that I spent at that restaurant. So, I think there's a lot of different reasons that people buy cookbooks.

Nadia (15:56):

Yeah, sounds like it. You had a little brainstorm right there. Do you find that cookbook publishers nudge authors into appealing to one of these certain kinds of markets the way that we might expect an editor for someone who's writing in journalism to maybe nudge them towards certain kinds of audiences? Does that happen with cookbooks?

Paula (16:21):

Absolutely. I would even take it a step further and say those certain publishers tend to publish different books for different audiences. I mean, that's not 100% true across the board, but if you look at Phaidon for example, they are known for doing these big artsy chef and restaurant books from renowned chefs around the world. But then also they do these “food bibles” where it will be the big book of Irish cooking - or those are the most recent ones. That's not the title but it's called The Irish Cookbook.

Paula (17:01):

Anyway, they've done them for Indian, Thailand and Mexico and all these different countries. So, they gear that way, these big books. You got Ten Speed which does a lot of books with chefs. Each publisher finds their niche and cultivates that audience. Of course, there are outliers to all of that, that people will tell me about the second they listen to those.

Nadia (17:29):

I guess there are a lot of different types of cookbook authors as well, right? I'm thinking about the domestic brand types like Martha Stewart or Chrissy Teigen or chefs or food critics. And so, there's just like different publishers that appeal to different types of authors?

Paula (17:49):

Mm-hmm. There are so many more cookbook authors than you would ever even think of. There are a lot of people who write small volumes that are a book about jam, or a book about Jewish baking or a book about ... I don't know. I don't even cover the diet books but there are a whole thing of cooking for diabetes and all of that. So, there are all these wings of cookbook authorship that it's pretty endless. There's a lot to write about.

Nadia (18:22):

How do cookbooks intersect with the rise of food blogging in the last 10 or 20 years? You've got like Spin Kitchen or pioneer women types who've written their own cookbooks. Do you see food blogging as this democratizing force for cookbooks - of allowing you entrance into the market? Or did it negatively impact the demand for cookbooks?

Paula (18:42):

How do I put this? I think that the demand for cookbooks is not linked to food blogging. And the reason that I will say that is because I think that the demand for cookbooks was more tied to the 2008 recession which coincided with the rise of food bloggers for maybe the same reason, which is a very complicated way to answer that question.

Paula (19:13):

What I will say is that, like you said, a lot of the big names of that first generation of food bloggers have written cookbooks to great success. And also that people are still doing that. And then these days, you tend to see also YouTubers and Instagram influencers who write cookbooks as well.

Nadia (19:41):

I had no idea that the 2008 recession coincided with the rise of food bloggers. And as I'm hearing that, I'm just thinking about right now experiencing the COVID pandemic that we're seeing right now and how that is correlated with a rise in people writing on Substack and I'm wondering if it's similar forces at work. Can you tell us just a little bit about what that was like in 2008?

Paula (20:03):

I mean, that was mostly just due to the fact that people couldn't afford to eat out anymore so they were eating at home. There was also, at the time, cultural discovery. I was a young person then, and so, it just seemed like everyone I knew was 25 and teaching themselves how to cook.

Paula (20:24):

I'm sure that's not what it looked from the outside, but what I do know is that book sales started going up and then there was this real big boom in cookbook publishing and it's been chugging along ever since. Near as I can tell in the current crisis, cookbook sales are doing okay, maybe even up.. But anecdotally I’ve noticed - and I've been covering this for 10 to 12 years -

Paula (20:55):

I've noticed significantly fewer book deal news coming across my desk, so that's a little troubling to me. But hopefully, people are just being cautious and it will pick up again in the fall.

Nadia (21:09):

That's really interesting to think about. What is the role of narrative in cookbooks, because I mean, as we're just thinking about the different types of people that buy cookbooks and why, there is this tendency for me to initially think of cookbooks as essentially how-to books. But then, you can look at it through this narrative lens as well where then I start thinking about them in relation to this broader genre of food memoirs.

Nadia (21:35):

I'm thinking about Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal which straddled both genres of cookbook and memoir. Where's the line between something being a memoir about food versus a how-to sort of cookbook?

Paula (21:50):

Yeah, I mean, I don't know that there needs to be a line there. I think that what you're doing with the memoir is you're trying to evoke the feeling of being in a place and time. And you're trying to represent something you remember as best as you can remember it. And I think that a recipe does the same thing in a much more obviously tactile and real world way but that that can be part of the experience of evoking this memory, I'm thinking specifically about restaurant cookbooks.

Paula (22:30):

Restaurants aren't supposed to last forever. They're a business that is born and has a heyday and then probably someday end - hopefully with everyone retiring very happy and well off. But in the meantime, it's a feeling that can go away. I mean as we're learning the hard way right now, the atmosphere and the buzz of a busy restaurant and the food it cooks, it's not a forever thing. Gosh, I didn't mean to get this depressing. But that narrative follows that, can evoke that and can be a record of what that energy was while in existence.

Nadia (23:22):

It's just like, I mean, that just also makes the case for books more broadly. It's a really beautiful take, and I appreciate it because it just makes me think about how when we are talking about online food blogging versus cookbooks and how those two things can coexist. And similarly, just writing in general, there's a place to write tweets. There's a place to write blog posts and there's always going to be this place to write books just because it is like this more permanent record or a marker in time as you were saying to capture a certain sentiment that maybe a short form can't always do.

Paula (23:59):

Yeah, absolutely, and that it can look at it from different angles. You can have a cookbook where you involve the pastry chef and you have some sample playlists from the music that plays in the restaurant. You have the photographs of the space. And maybe you have a few testimonials from customers and that kind of thing and then all of it builds and adds to become as close as you can get to the restaurant itself.

Paula (24:29):

And I think that the recipes are a key part of that because you can say, "Okay, well, what about an episode of some TV show where they interview chefs and go to restaurants and things." But it's the food, the food is the thing. And so, when you have that recipe, you can understand how the food has been ... Even if you don't make them at home, even if you don't recreate it in your own kitchen, you can still read about it and say, "Okay, well, they made it with this brand of soy sauce instead of this brand of soy sauce because so and so was from here. But at this market, they only have this."

Paula (25:03):

And then, "Oh, they have this wild technique where they salt mushrooms two hours ahead," whatever. You read the thing and you learn all this stuff about what went into this restaurant in a way that you can't learn otherwise.

Nadia (25:23):

Yeah, that sounds like it’s like the recipe isn't just a process or a list of steps but it's a peek behind the curtain to see what really goes into, especially as you're saying, with a restaurant cookbook. What's the mark of a good cookbook for you?

Paula (25:36):

What's the mark of a good cookbook? I don't know.

Nadia (25:41):

I mean, just what are your favorite types?

Paula (25:44):

Yeah, I was going to say there's a difference between a good cookbook and a cookbook that I get excited about. I like really weird cookbooks. I mean if something surprises me, that's going to get me excited. Weird art, weird design makes me excited. Sort of over-the-top writing makes me excited.

Paula (26:12):

But what makes for a good cookbook - that most people who aren't the crazy cookbook lady are going to think is good - is I want to be able to open to three separate pages and want to make one of the recipes, I would say, is big. I think that information beyond the recipes that you can use in multiple settings is important for me.

Paula (26:42):

A really good cookbook, if I'm going to keep a cookbook in my kitchen, I need info in it beyond the recipes that are useful to me in more than one way. So, say you have a book on sourdough and sourdough starters. I want to be able to read about how the starter can be applied to bread versus pizza versus muffins or whatever. And that to me is a book that's not just a one-off disposable cookbook. That's a book that has earned its keep on its spot on my shelf.

Nadia (27:27):

What are some styles or trends that you've seen in cookbooks over the years? Especially just comparing like modern, let's say post internet style cookbooks - are they really different from the cookbooks of the '50s?

Paula (27:39):

Oh, gosh.

Nadia (27:39):

We're going all the way back, maybe the '90s.

Paula (27:44):

I mean cookbook, you would be shocked how much cookbooks have changed. I bought this cookbook recently from 1999 and the photographs, if you didn't know it was from 1999, you would think from the '80s. You would not be able to guess.

Paula (27:58):

So since I've started writing about cookbooks, the big things have been most books drop the jackets. So we don't do jackets anymore. There was this big trend towards unfinished paper. So it was this matte finish that in my opinion made the photos look blurry as opposed to a glossy finish paper, which people like because the unfinished paper is thicker and it makes your book look bigger. But I think it made the photography look terrible and we seemed to be moving away from that a little bit, so that's good.

Paula (28:40):

The big trend recently has been the white covers with the photos with the white border around the photo. Alison Roman's cookbooks have that. What else? As far as topics go, there was a big restaurant push that we seem to be coming out of where it’s just like, "Oh, if you're the big chef in your size town, you should have a cookbook." There's always been nerdy bread boy books. There are always men who write these like “my bread journey” cookbooks.

Paula (29:22):

Now, we're seeing more regional international cookbooks which I think is good. Like not just, I don't know, China but specific regions of China. That kind of thing I think is great.

Nadia (29:37):

I love it. I love the aesthetic ones, the changes that you mentioned. I'd love to just see your collection of cookbooks all lined up chronologically. I imagine you could just visually see how much they have changed over time.

Paula (29:50):

Probably, yeah.

Nadia (29:52):

Fun project. How does an author go about getting a cookbook published? Is it similar to getting books published in general? Is there anything special about the cookbook genre?

Paula (30:01):

How you get a book published, I mean it's about the same. It's similar to the nonfiction world where you write a book proposal and then you get the advance and then you write the cookbook with proposals. You need a whole list, all of the recipes listed ahead of time so you know what every single recipe in the book is going to be. And you also have to develop them.

Paula (30:32):

So, I'm working on a proposal right now and I think we have 12 full recipes and then five to eight sub-recipes that are real short. Here is the stock that goes into the soup kind of thing. And then of course, the cookbook publishers are often specialized publishers. They're not publishing novels and other things but they're part of those publishers.

Nadia (31:01):

How do they coordinate all that gorgeous photography? I mean, design falls under the publisher. Where do all the photography come from?

Paula (31:10):

Well, I can tell you how it worked on my book.

Nadia (31:12):

Yes, so I'd love to hear about your book.

Paula (31:15):

So, I wrote the Austin Cookbook. I wrote it in 2016. It came out in 2018. We shot the photography ... I worked with a photographer from Dallas-Fort Worth named Robert Strickland who's an excellent photographer, A+ to Robert. He came down for two long weekends when we shot all of the food where we worked with the food stylist for studio food shots. And then, I don't know how many weekends he came down to shoot the restaurants. And we shot some of the food in the restaurants also. So, the book is a collection of restaurant recipes from Austin restaurants.

Paula (32:06):

When all the photography was done, I sent that to the publisher. And I also sent them an email with a million links to Flickr and Instagram and all these things that I just thought looked Austin-y, murals and colors and just all kinds of random stuff I thought might be useful. And then they had their designer put it all together. They had a fun idea where some of the font for the headings of the recipes was inspired by old Tex-Mex menus and stuff like that. It's all very evocative of the thing, and I think that that's right that it should be like that.

Nadia (32:56):

It's kind of cool because as a writer, I imagine there aren't that many genres that are so photography heavy. Producing this cookbook is really an entire production process of not just writing the words but also having a vision for the visuals and knowing how you want to portray them.

Nadia (33:17):

And so, you're not just writing out words but you're also having to think in terms of imagery and layout, which just draws upon many more skills and maybe some of those other writers are comfortable with.

Paula (33:29):

You know though, it's not dissimilar from blogging.

Nadia (33:32):

In what way?

Paula (33:34):

If you're thinking about white space, you're thinking about how do I break this up with headers so that it's easily skimmable? You're thinking about how long are people's attention spans? It's not writing a novel. You're not going to have a wall of text. So how are you guiding the readers' eyes across ... I mean I didn't design the book, but how are you breaking up that information into these digestible little chunks.

Nadia (34:06):

That's a really good point. I guess I'd never really thought of that. I'm such a text-heavy person. I'm just like I can't do anything that involves images. The writing that I do doesn't really have any images in it and stuff. But you're right, I definitely think about the breaking up of paragraphs and texts. And there's sort of different styles too.

Nadia (34:22):

Some people really lean into the long rambling style and enormous paragraphs. And they make use or work for it. And then other people do that one line, one dramatic statement per paragraph. So, yeah, you're right. I mean even bloggers have to be thinking about how they visually lay things out to draw people in.

Paula (34:41):

Well, for my newsletter for example, certain sections I do bullet points. I always bold cookbook titles and cookbook author names. I'll bold a few keywords in a quote. And that's the same muscle. It's like, "Here's where I want you to look."

Nadia (35:00):

Right. You still need to draw people's eye in even if you're just writing text without photos. We talked a little bit about the fact that you wrote your own cookbook and you wrote that after being a cookbook critic for over a decade now. After years of reviewing other people's cookbooks, what prompted you to cross over and try to write your own?

Paula (35:24):

It was something I always wanted to do. And it was an opportunity that came up. It was not my idea to write the book. It was an opportunity that came up from my agent. And I was like, "Yes, absolutely." I wanted to experience the process of it because for example before that, I was reviewing cookbooks and I always ... Obviously, a lot more people than the author are going to the cookbook but I always use the author's name as sort of this authorial presence when I would talk about the book.

Paula (36:04):

But I think it was really useful in showing me how much of the process is actually totally out of the hands of the author. Things like a common complaint you'll hear about cookbooks if you go to an Amazon review is that the ingredients are on a different page than the instructions. You have to flip back and forth between the ingredients and the instruction. And often there's no getting around that but there's also just like 17 people who influenced that.

Paula (36:37):

So I think that going through the process of publishing a cookbook was really illustrative to me of just how many hands are in the thing. And this is not a shade on my publisher, Abrams - they were great. But just living the experience, I think, really informed my ability to review cookbooks. I'm probably going to do more. We'll see.

Nadia (37:05):

More cookbooks? They're addictive, book writing things. I just published my first book. It's a nonfiction book and it definitely had that same sort of takeaway as like wow, so many people go into writing this final thing. Unfortunately, your name appears as the author which means that if everything is amazing, then the credit goes to you and if there's anything wrong with it, then it also looks like something that you wrote which is this very weird experience.

Nadia (37:34):

I'm curious about your research process just to sort of trade notes. I love the book writing process now in retrospect - but during it, it was miserable in a lot of ways because you're just trapped in front of your laptop and you're typing all the time. And I have this very glamorous image of cookbook writing by contrast being this feast of the senses where you're cooking and you're hosting taste test parties. You're going out to eat for inspiration. Take me down a notch, what is the process of writing a cookbook really like?

Paula (38:06):

It's a little bit of that.

Nadia (38:08):

Damn it.

Paula (38:08):

It was a lot of sending emails. So, my book was recipes from restaurants. So it was a lot, a lot, a lot of emailing chefs and publicists. And chefs are not necessarily known for email etiquette or even having a computer in their office in their restaurants, so it was a lot of trying to track people down reminding them, "Oh, yeah. I'm Paula Forbes with the project where we're doing all the Austin restaurant cookbooks or recipes," and reminding them who you are and all the things. So that was probably the first four months of it.

Paula (38:54):

And then I did do a lot of recipe testing. I had a dinner party every Friday for about three months.

Nadia (39:02):

You're everyone's favorite friend.

Paula (39:05):

I don't know. A big thing with me was I didn't want to waste the food, but it got to be a lot of work and it got to some weird dinner parties when you started only having a few recipes left and you're like, "Well, these things don't really go together," but you'll eat it and you'll be happy.

Paula (39:27):

So, it was that and then very heavy on copy edits are huge in cookbooks - like you always want the ingredients in the order they appear in the recipe for example. What else? It's like that. We had to wait until my book was published in metric and then, what do you call it, imperial.

Nadia (39:52):

Imperial, yeah, I guess so.

Paula (39:56):

Cups and teaspoons.

Nadia (39:58):

Right, that one.

Paula (39:59):

So there was a lot of how do we translate this, figuring how much stuff weighed months after you had tested it, that kind of thing.

Nadia (40:12):

You had recipes in your book that were from restaurants but then you also had to test them out yourself. Are you adjusting their recipes at all or is it just to ensure that someone reading it could then replicate the same experience?

Paula (40:30):

I cut the size down. So, often, their chefs would send me just their actual recipe which made five gallons of enchilada sauce or whatever it was. And so, I would have to cut that down to the amount of enchilada sauce that would go on one lasagna pan of enchiladas and then also talk about how to make the enchiladas, because that would be different than how they would make it in the restaurant. But the recipes themselves I didn't change. So the amount of chili powder or garlic or the taste of the thing is the same but just at a home scale.

Nadia (41:10):

Got it. And so, it's like you're co-writing with the restaurants in a sense, because they're agreeing to give up their recipes for your book and you have to convince them of that, I assume. And then you're taking that and putting in this right narrative and context that people will enjoy them.

Paula (41:29):

And you know it's also a lot of interviews and telling their stories and that kind of thing, too.

Nadia (41:38):

Just to wrap up, you've had this privileged experience of seeing cookbooks on both sides, both as the author and as a person reviewing them. Did that writing experience give you more empathy for others writing cookbooks?

Paula (41:55):

Yes and no. A good friend of mine once told me that bad recipes are stealing. You are stealing money from people who spent that money on their food and they were expecting to be able to make X and if it doesn't work, and that's on you, that's stealing. So I still firmly, firmly believe that and I don't think anyone has any business publishing recipes that are not thoroughly tested and worked. So, that's what I'll say for starters.

Paula (42:36):

But yeah, I mean I think it's a scary thing to write a cookbook. I think I know every single weird thing in my cookbook that no one will ever, ever notice. And they don't keep me up at night but I know they're there. There's no mistakes in it or anything, just you know - you always know the weird thing like, “Oh, that condensation on that glass and that photo is slightly off," or that kind of stuff that no one cares about.

Paula (43:06):

Yeah, I have empathy for that. It's a hell of a process. You have to be so organized and you have to be just on top of everything. It's so much more data than just writing the text of the thing. It's so much work. Cookbooks are so much work and I have so much respect for anyone who tries to write one - unless they don't test the recipes.