Foods

The Hidden Labor Behind Recipes

Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above, and scroll down to read a partial transcript of Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips’ conversation with Julia Turshen.


Here is a partial transcript of Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips’ interview with Julia Turshen, edited and condensed for clarity.

SOLEIL:
We’re so excited to talk to you today. We don’t really have that many cookbook authors come on the show, unfortunately. And it’s such an important part of the food media industry complex, there’s so much for us to dig into, so I’m really excited.

JULIA: No, thank you so much for having me! I definitely spend most of my time in this kind of odd corner of the cookbook world, but it’s part of this bigger thing and I feel like you both do such a good job of talking about all these different aspects of the bigger thing. So, whatever I can add to the conversation, I’m happy to, thanks for having me!

SOLEIL: So can you describe your corner?

JULIA: Sure! I feel like I’ve had a really interesting experience compared to a lot of other cookbook authors I know, because I’ve worked on a lot of other cookbooks besides my own. And I’ve also done my own! Most people I think do one or the other of those two things and I’ve gotten to do both and if you add up all those books, I’ve worked on 15 books in pretty much as many years. So, it means [working with] a number of editors, a number of photographers, a number of publicists – which was like a whole side of cookbooks that I feel like we don’t always think about – so, I’ve worked with just basically a ton of people on a ton of books and I’ve learned a lot. Does that give you a good sense of the corner? I don’t know, I feel like I’m talking too much…

SOLEIL: I think that does a great job of just sketching it out, especially for listeners who have never interacted with the cookbook world beyond using a cookbook. There’s a lot of politics and hierarchy and certain parts of the food media are sexier versus others. And I also think, as someone who has been so prolific in the cookbook writing world, I’m sure you’ve been through the ringer and seen all kinds of… things…

JULIA: That is definitely accurate. I can look back now and see how broken a lot of things were, but you know, I’ve been involved in just the publishing industry and food media, like all that kind of stuff. I also see so much positive stuff and I’m very hopeful about a lot of things now. It’s interesting because I think most people interact with cookbooks just as you’re saying, like maybe you pick one up at the bookstore at the library or you see one mentioned in a magazine you read, and maybe buy it or check it out. Maybe you cook some stuff out of it. But I imagine maybe you don’t have a sense of all the politics and inside baseball. It’s the same with any kind of business that also involves a lot of creative output, I think that’s kind of the same thing where there’s a lot behind the scenes.

JUSTIN: I know how much work goes into creating a cookbook. And I’m always interested in hearing the mechanics of it, hearing someone like yourself, talk about what that process is like. Can you let people know what goes into this and also what would inspire burnout? You know? Cause that’s, it’s a very real thing.

JULIA:  I think answering your first question about what is involved in making a cookbook simultaneously answers your second question about why it might lead to burn out.

JUSTIN: There you go.

JULIA: Because it is a lot. It’s a ton of work to make a really good cookbook. And I just mean that because to write recipes that work, to test recipes enough times and to have them tested by enough people that they will work in various kitchens that have all sorts of variables, including, you know: my skillet might be smaller than yours, my knife might be sharper than yours, or my oven might get hotter than yours… To take all of these variables into account, and to still produce recipes that will work, to answer reader’s questions before they might even know they have them, to think about how ingredients are labeled at the grocery store and have those things reflected in how you write down the ingredients and your list of ingredients in the recipe. I think about how big the packages are, how big the containers are at the grocery store, because I don’t want to call for an amount that you have to buy two when you could just buy one…so taking all of these many details into consideration, you know, making sure when you take the photographs, there’s not something in the photograph that’s not reflected in the recipe… It’s a mountain of details. And I’m talking about micro things here, but on the macro level, just the process of building a whole table of contents and stuff…it’s a lot.

SOLEIL: So, how does it start?

JULIA: It starts with the book proposal, which is, I like to think of it as it’s the business plan for the book. If you’ve ever written a business plan for something else, if you’ve ever made just a plan for something else, a lesson plan or whatever, that is very much what the book proposal is. You’re basically making this document that explains what the book is, who you are, why you’re the right person to do it, what’s going to be in this book, your table of contents with the recipes.

For me, that is my favorite part of every project is coming up with that table of contents, because it’s the moment when I feel most creative. You include some sample recipes and stuff. Maybe you’ll include stuff about who else might be on your team for this…maybe we already know the photographer. And then hopefully your agent takes that book proposal and sells it to a publisher. And that’s the ideal scenario.

Then you get your book advance, which is the money you’re given upfront to make your book, and sometimes that is not enough money to make the book you’d like to make. Sometimes it’s enough for a few people… From proposal to book on your shelf, it’s about two years. And the first year is creating all the content, doing all of your writing, your testing, your photography. The next year is spent usually editing and going through many rounds of editing and then going through many rounds of design, laying out all the pages. A lot of that second year is just spent waiting for, I don’t know what usually for the book to get printed, and a lot of the second year is also spent planning publicity. So you’ve made this thing, the publisher has invested in this thing. So now how are they going to make the money back? Will they make the money back? And that includes doing things like reaching out to the two of you to see if you’ll speak to someone like me on your podcast, tons of stuff like that!

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