Why I’ll (Probably) Never Publish Your Cookbook

It happened again. My own book is still a couple of months away from publication and already, I am getting pitches from people wanting me to publish their book. Specifically, their cookbook.

The first came via Twitter. (Incidentally – do not ever do this.) A public message asking if I’d be interested in a fun, quirky cookbook. Besides the fact that you destroy any credibility you might have as a serious writer by pitching to a publisher via Twitter, it helps to actually visit the website of the publisher and learn more about them and what they’re looking for, or if they’re accepting submissions at all. That you came across an indie publisher on Twitter and contacted them doesn’t get you points for taking the initiative, it makes you look like someone who is clueless, can’t follow protocol or written instructions, and who probably doesn’t really care about how professionally things are done.

Far moreso in the US than here in Canada, successful bloggers have been able to translate their blogs into book deals. But Canadian publishers have never had a lot of money to do such things and tend to stick with the more tried and true – TV chefs or chefs from restaurants with a strong customer base. And while there are many publishers who offer a lot of cookbooks and obviously do well with them, I don’t want to be one of them.

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When is a Badass Not a Badass?

Medium Raw
Anthony Bourdain

Harper Collins, 281 pages, 2010, $28.99CA

I was surprised, upon reading Medium Raw, to see that the sharp-clawed Anthony Bourdain had become a bit of a pussycat. And a timid one at that.

Bourdain has made a whole career out of being a tell-it-like-it-is, in-your-face kind of guy. He shit-talked people in his industry publicly, letting his feelings and opinions be well-known. And who knows if it’s the wisdom of age or some joyous glow of fatherhood, but many chapters of Medium Raw are Bourdain not just backing down, but rolling over and presenting his belly for a scratch. He once ripped apart Rachael Ray. But she sent him a fruit basket, and now they’re pals. He super shit-talked Alice Waters, but after meeting her (an event that scared him, probably because he expected her to call him out on his shit-talking) now admits that she’s probably (mostly) right about where our food comes from and changes that need to be made to our food system.

He still shit talks vegetarians, but even that is met with a softer edge, as he instead directs his anger at the factory farm systems that leave us eating burgers full of actual shit.

I guess I’m just trying to get my head around this kinder, gentler Bourdain, but it’s not jibing for me. Tony was the guy you could always count on to say what other people were thinking but were too afraid to say. Which is something I pride myself on doing, so maybe I’m just feeling a little betrayed that Tony has crossed to the other side.

He still calls people out – a whole chapter of Medium Raw is called Heroes and Villains, and he lists a pile of reasons for each call. And the chapter Alan Richman is a Douchbag has made the rounds online with food writers from all over taking sides. But I can’t help wondering – will Bourdain’s next book include a story about how he’s now friends with Richman because the GQ food writer sent him a a fruit basket?

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I’ll See Your Organic Free-Range Chicken and Raise You a Tin of Lamb Mince

While the name Delia Smith is familiar to me, I’ll have to admit that I’m not especially familiar with her cookbooks. Given the recent fuss about her newest cookbook How To Cheat at Cooking, I sort of assumed she was one of those slack-assed Rachel Ray types with the canned goods and bagged greens, teaching fans how to spread salmonella in three easy steps.

But it turns out that Smith is more well-known for being the UK’s answer to Martha Stewart. She spent years teaching Britons how to cook real food, teaching them basic cookery techniques and classical dishes. How to Cheat at Cooking is apparently a rewrite of her first book published in 1971, but from there, her work was all about cooking with real, fresh ingredients.

Any new book sells better with a wave of press, and there is some speculation that Smith’s recent public comments about Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign against battery chickens might simply be desperate publicity spin. Smith claims that her recipes are designed to feed the poor, especially the chyllldrunnn (who will think of them?), but even poor kids are likely to turn up their noses at some of the stuff in her new book.

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Chefs Are the New Rock Stars

Imagine for a moment that you’re walking down the street and you pass a punk-looking kid wearing a black t-shirt with Anthony Bourdain’s face on the front. Or you’re in the mall and the gaggle of girls outside of Old Navy are all wearing sparkly pink shirts emblazoned with the Rachael Ray logo. Or maybe you’re watching the news to see thousands of women mobbing the airport when Jamie Oliver deplanes and races to a limo to be whisked away before someone gets injured.

To people in the industry, the concept of chefs as celebrities seems vaguely uncomfortable. The people who cook the food for restaurants, events, and hotels are meant to be behind the scenes. They’re part of the great machine that makes a dinner or an event happen seamlessly and beautifully; the kitchen is called “back of house” for a reason. Most dedicated cooks don’t want the attention – they want to do their jobs and do it well, and don’t much care for the cameras and interviews and face time.

But most is not all, and as more and more of the celebrity chefs we watch on TV sign endorsement deals or create product lines of their own, the desire – we’ll even call it a “need” to be seen, to be out there promoting the gadgets, the cookbook, the product lines and oh, yeah, the restaurant – becomes overwhelming.

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Dumb and Dumber

One of my first posts when I started up this journal was about how I hated the Food Network, about how I thought it was becoming insipid and fluffy and annoying.

Turns out I’m not alone. Bill Burford of the New Yorker has written a piece for the latest issue on the dumbing down of the Food Network.

What’s really sad is that genuinely talented chefs with information and skills and techniques to share, chefs such as Sara Moulton, Anthony Bourdain and David Rosengarten, are being pushed out by talentless hacks with a schtick. There should be no comparison whatsoever between Moulton ands someone like Rachael Ray, yet the viewing audience would rather watch Ray unwrap packages of cooked ham and pound skinless bonelss chicken breasts into tasteless goop. I don’t get it.

That’s not true, actually, I do. Because the world of cooking is a lot like the world of fashion.

Bear with me for an explanation.

Both are necessities – we have to eat and, in most cases, we have to wear clothes. Just as there are fashionistas who buy designer gear or spend hours or even days creating an outfit, the same goes for foodies. Some of us will hunt for the perfect purse, some of us will hunt for the perfect cheese.

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Channel Surfing

Somewhere in the transfer of cable services from home A to home B, we ended up with a bunch of cable channels we didn’t have before. Besides the fact that we are cheapasses and refuse to pay for a bunch of channels that we mostly don’t watch, we made the well-thought-out decision to cancel all but basic cable a few years back for one specific reason.

I yell at the Food Network.

Honestly, I am flabberghasted that there are unsuspecting housewives out there, tuning in to the Food Network, thinking that they’re going to get decent advice on anything to do with cooking.

(NOTE – with the possible exception of Alton Brown. He’s an alright guy.)

Of course, the extra channels that we are now burdened with include the Food Network, and I have quickly gotten sucked in again. It’s been a few years, so many of the faces are new (although I see that BAM! guy is still there, mucking things up), but it’s reassuring to see that one can get a job hosting a cooking show without any damn idea of how to cook. Note that many of the people I mention below appear on the Canadian Food Network so you US folks might not recognize everyone. [1]

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