photo by Charlotte Bland
I was asked to give a speech about 'How to Write a Cookbook" for the Women in Food event organised by Cook Corriere della Sera, and so I thought I would put the transcript here. The editors at Cook asked me choose a single word as the 'key' to my speech, and the word I chose was 'love'. Look away now if you don't like love....
When I was little I used to say my prayers every night before going to sleep. (Fear not, this is not a religious speech or any kind of sermon). My prayers were always made up of three parts; a please, a sorry, and a thank you.
When I was writing this speech I thought I would use the same framework, partly because I think it’s a triad structure which is applicable to many scenarios, and partly because I am a great believer in threes. Three has always been my lucky number.
So, firstly the apology, because I’m English and we tend to begin with apologies, but most specifically I’d like to apologise in advance because I tend to talk very fast, and it’s been a fair while since I did any public speaking, or in fact did anything in public at all. Having spent the last 2 years sotto Covid in rural Sardinia most of my lengthier and more intellectual conversations have been conducted with my cat. So, dear audience, please forgive me for what I am about to say….
Now that the apology is out of the way, I can move swiftly on to the plea, or the please of this talk. When I was asked to do this presentation I was also asked to choose a single word as the overarching theme, and the word I chose was ‘love’.
Now this might not be the first word that springs to mind when you think of a cookbook, but bear with me, I promise I have a point.
I firmly believe that to become a good writer you have to first be a good reader, so it feels appropriate for me to begin with a quote from one of my favourite food writers, an author who I always re-read when I am feeling in a creative rut.
“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it….”
This quote, as many of you will no doubt know, is by M F K Fisher, who is one of my favourite food writers. Fisher writes books how I wish I one day could; brimming with brio, passion and poignancy, funny and sad, full of saucy stories, wit and wisdom. Her books are full of food, yes, jam-packed, but they are also full of life, and that is why I love them.
I believe, like Fisher, that Love should be the driving force behind food writing. That’s my plea. That you put love at the core (pardon the pun) of your food writing.
If you think about it food is inseparable from love. The first way a mother shows love for a child, whether that mother is animal or human, is by feeding it. Feeding is nurturing, nurturing is loving. Feeding people is an expression of love.
Food is also – of course - inseparable from family. We eat with our families; something that is especially true in Italy, and one of the aspects of Italian life which I fell in love with. I fell in love with an Italian man, which took me to Italy (to Sardinia specifically) and then I fell in love with Italian food, and that is when I really found my food-writing voice, in my first book, Bitter Honey, which is in many ways a love letter to a person, the person that introduced me properly to Italian food, and also to a place, Italy, which has become my home. In writing Bitter Honey I tried to capture some of the love I witnessed and shared in the Italian style of cooking and eating, the importance of family, of time spent together around a table, TV possibly blaring in the background, family members either squabbling or in silence.
I soon discovered that writing a cookbook is a labour of love – it’s probably not going to make you rich (there are exceptions to every rule). In which case it has to be something you really care about, something you are truly passionate about; it’s really about passion. The driving force behind everything I cook and write is love. I am, and always will be, an incurable romantic.
But whilst I could ramble on about love forever (there’s a whole book there) I do also want to provide some practical advice for budding cookbook authors, and so to make life easier I have broken down my main argument into 10 points beginning with P.
9. Pitching & Publication
10. Perfection & Process
(I know there are two words in the last points but I had too many words. The story of my life!)
Tiny is passionate about my bread basket
I have dealt with this a little already; talking about love and how it translates into cooking. But I think it’s essential to remember that passion is extremely contagious. If you can write passion into your recipes then your readers will feel it. If you can convey passionately how delicious something is, it will be all the more poignantly felt by your reader, and they will be inspired to recreate it themselves. Remember that we all have the (human) tendency to be lazy and lacklustre, but passion can motivate us, it can propel us into the kitchen. It can make us want to plunge our hands into pastry or pull leaves from unwelcoming artichokes. Cooking takes time and effort; it’s easy to avoid and to procrastinate, but if you manage to convey passion, if you manage to persuade your audience that you really believe in this dish, then you have won the battle (though not the war, the other points deal with that).
In terms of Italian cuisine, which has become by default the cookery I cook, talk and write about the most (after 4 years in Italy that’s probably to be expected) passion has always been a vital element. Italians are enormously passionate about their food, proudly passionate; always happy to talk at great length about it. It is impossible not to be swept up in this passion which is perhaps why Italian food has such lasting and profound appeal, and why Italy and many Italian regions remain the Holy Grail for so many food lovers. This passion is certainly something I encountered as soon as I moved to Italy and something that changed me. It is truly contagious. This passion is something I have tried very hard to get across in my own cookbook writing, in all of my writing, and I think it is fundamental. If you don’t have passion, then why bother?
Me and my Grandmother
Which leads me – of course – to people. Cooking is really about people. The people you cook for, the people you eat with, the people who teach you recipes and tell you their stories. This is a photo of me and my grandmother. I think nearly everybody who loves cooking has a story about a beloved grandmother who fed them. My grandmother was the person who first inspired in me a love of eating. She was a fantastic cook and a greedy eater, and when I write and when I cook she is always with me. My second book is dedicated to her.
When I moved to Italy I gained another grandmother, Nonna Giulia. She taught me how to make pasta al sugo, how to kill a chicken, and how to make minestra di patate, one of my favourite recipes which I included in my first book, Bitter Honey. She is a wonderful woman and a force of nature, and even before I spoke any Italian she would lecture me for hours on how to pass my pelati through a moulis to remove the seeds. She was full of stories, wisdom and warmth and her stories and recipes penetrate my first book.
No one who cooks cooks alone, and there are always people with me when I write and when I cook. My dad, another food lover and constant inspiration; Nonna Giulia, my own grandmother. Often recipes themselves come from people, whether from family or friends, so it is important to remember this when you are thinking about writing a cookbook. A cookbook is always a joint enterprise, there are not only the team involved in the book process itself (editors, photographers, recipe testers etc) but also the people behind the recipes, the people you cook the recipes for. It is impossible to write about food without also writing about people; as I say, where there are people there are stories, and recipes are stories. So start collecting, start listening. Listening is fundamental, you need to be a good listener. You need to start paying attention when people talk about their favourite childhood dishes, about the way their grandmother made eggs or skinned a rabbit. These will become essential parts of your book, and you must become a culinary magpie, collecting, collating and curating bits and pieces from as many places and people as possible.
You also need to think about the people you are writing for; your audience, as it were. Who do you want to read your writing? Who do you want to cook your recipes? It is important that you try to level with them, to empathise with them, to understand that they may be stressed and time-poor, that they be amateur cooks, that they may even hate cooking. Be kind in your writing, be sympathetic. Be understanding. You are providing guidance, advice, encouragement, yes, but don’t be bossy or judgemental. My favourite cookbook authors write as if they were talking to me across their own kitchen table over a glass of wine.
Remember to talk to people too. Talking about food is a wonderful opener. Nothing is easier, more pleasant, or more universal. Whenever I teach English lessons to Italians I always open with food, as it gets everyone talking. It has a universal quality which means everyone can partake. We all eat, we all like eating. Writing about food means becoming a good listener, and being a good talker.
A subheading under people, I wanted to mention producers. Anyone who is passionate about good must therefore be passionate about produce, and then by default about producers too. This is especially true of Italian food. Good cooking in Italy is really about good shopping, as the quality of the primary ingredients is so fundamental to the Italian approach to food. So it helps to get to know your producers and to seek out good ones, as they will serve you well, and possibly have stories and recipes to share with you too.
photo by Charlotte Bland
This leads me nicely onto produce. As I mentioned above, your produce is fundamental when you think, write, cook or talk about food. You should enjoy sourcing it, shopping for it. You should advise your readers about how to procure it, and how to spot the good from the bad. Being able to shop well is half the battle of creating good food; it’s a skill and should also be a pleasure rather than a chore. In your writing advise people how and where to find it, and make allowances for where they are and the budget/options they might have available to them.
Boring though it may be for someone like me, who is naturally extremely slap-dash and imprecise, precision when writing a cookbook is important.
I wrote in my second book (which is all about baking) all about the wonderful and infuriating concept of Quanto Basta which exists in Italy and means adding as much as is enough, but these days people are very reluctant to follow this, and require precise measurements. It is your responsibility as a cookbook writer to provide them with such. Carry with at all times a digital scale, and test everything as much as possible, potentially outsourcing recipes to friends and family just to make doubly sure they work. Whilst totally perfect precision is impossible – ingredients will differ, ovens too. Try be as precise as possible, and write everything down as you go. Always have a notebook and pen/pencil handy in the kitchen.
In terms of the recipes themselves, it’s also important to remember that part of precision is clarity - you need to be clear in your instructions. Numbering them, using bullet points or separate paragraphs can make things nicely clear for the reader. In the ingredients list choose how to order them: by quantity or by order of what you use first. Study other recipes and recipe books, see how they work, do your research, like every good student.
This is one I personally struggle with as I am naturally an extremely impatient person. However, even if it does not come naturally you will have to learn to cultivate some, as it essential in cookbook writing, and in cooking. Don’t expect things to turn out perfectly first time in terms of your recipes, and don’t expect the writing to flow easily every time you put pen to paper, or finger to keypad. There is nothing fast about the process of writing cookbooks, as tedious as that may be. Editing too is essential, and takes time.
photo by Charlotte Bland
This point for me is fundamental, because both my books are about a specific place - Sardinia - and then beyond that, Italy. There is always a place or several places associated with food writing of any kind, even if that place is your current kitchen, kitchens of your past or future. It’s important to think about the place that you are cooking in, the place you are writing from, and the place where you readers may be reading. Food is almost inseparable from identity, you only truly come to know a place by eating your way through it. 'Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are', as Brillat Savarin wrote.
photo by Charlotte Bland
Don’t be afraid of being personal, food IS personal, cooking IS personal, your readers want to hear your story; they want to get to know you. Reading is just being nosey. Food is about memory, nostalgia, identity and ideas of home, not just about putting things in your mouth and swallowing them, and all of these themes are deeply personal. Writing about cooking is inherently intimate, you are providing a window for people into your world, inviting them to join you at your table, with your family, your friends, your dishes. This is a wonderful and special thing. I like cookbooks with a story – what’s your story, what is it that you want to share? What is it that you love and want other people to love too?
Also not just the personal but personality too. Be yourself. Stay true to yourself and what you believe in. To please others you have to first please yourself, and so what makes you happy? Hungry? Satisfied? The passion will be better translated if it is genuine and authentic. Don’t make compromises, be natural and authentic. The book should reflect your personality, and should be written in your own voice.
photo by Charlotte Bland
A quick word about imagery. I’m not a photographer. Lots of food writers are also brilliant photographers and I envy them because I have no skill when it comes to taking photographs. There can be no denying that an image complements the writing, and is a beautiful thing in itself; photography is of course an art-form, but I do not necessarily believe that all cookbooks need to have photographs (and in fact some of my favourite books don’t). Don’t be discouraged if you cannot take photographs, just have a go with whatever you have at hand, and try to find somewhere with good light. I have picked up a few simple tips along the way when working with photographers:
1. Natural light is everything – choose sunny, bright days, morning and evening are the best times with the most beautiful light
2. Framing is important
3. Natural is good
4. Simple is good – don’t feel the need to overcomplicate things
Other than that I have chosen both of the photographers for my books, Matt Russell and Charlotte Bland, because they are great at various disciplines; portraits, landscapes and food, all of which go into my cookbooks. I also chose them because they are both brilliant with natural light, which is an essential part of the aesthetic of my books.
Pitching & Publication
So you’ve got your stories, your recipes, your people and your places, maybe even your photographs. Now to the next step. Pitching a cookbook and getting it to publication stage is not easy. The market is saturated and you need to really believe in your project. As I said at the beginning, passion is contagious, so make sure that comes across in your pitch. Make it short, concise and punchy – about 10 recipes, a good introduction, and a summary of why it is different, why it is important, why it is unique and worthwhile. Then choose a publisher you like and negotiate with them, with or without an agent, and – as they used to say when I worked in kitchens - push push push. Don’t take no for an answer. You are bound to get some rejections, it’s all part of the process. I got plenty! And lots of people won’t even read the pitch properly so just keep at it. Above all, believe in yourself and don’t give up.
My final points are perfectionism and process (we’re getting there I promise!). Another of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, once said:
‘If I waited for perfection , I would never write a word’.
I keep these words in mind with me all the time. I am a horrible perfectionist in everything I do, which is a lethal combination when combined with natural clumsiness and disorganisation I can tell you, but when it comes to self-criticism it’s important to give yourself a break. Have faith in yourself and in your ability, and don’t be too critical. It is all a process, a learning experience, a curve. The very best time to start is now.
So that’s the plea/or the please done. Which allows me to move finally to the thank you, to round off this little prayer/petition/presentation.
I would like to say a huge and heartfelt thank you to the people that invited me here today, that have stayed to listen to my jumbled and hasty words, to the people that went into the making of my books, editors and photographers and everyone, and of course – forever and always – to all the people in my life who I love.
And to finish with a wonderfully corny paraphrased Beatles quote (it makes me happy that the Beatles are well loved here in Italy too - though I will always prefer the Stones...)
Love (and perhaps a pen and a good panino) is really all you need.