Write A Cookbook (Even If You Can’t Cook)

Recently a writing student told me she wanted to write a cookbook, but she couldn’t get started yet: she needed to master cooking first. After all, if she couldn’t create a recipe, she couldn’t write a cookbook…

Could she?

That got me thinking about the elements of great cookbooks. Yes, they contain recipes, but they also contain something else which is more important.

I’ve been reading Samin Nosrat’s excellent Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. It reminds me of Elizabeth David’s books, which I’ve read and reread over the years.

Elizabeth David’s books have been selling consistently for 70 years: A Book of Mediterranean Food was first published in 1950.

I adore blogging, so of course I also thought about Julie Powell’s “The Julie & Julia Project Blog.” The blog became the book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, published in 2005. That book became a movie.

There’s a lesson in those books for anyone who wants to write a cookbook, but feels challenged in the kitchen. A great cookbook offers more than recipes… Just as well, because you can find millions of recipes online.

Want to write a cookbook? Forget the food, think about the concept (story)

So, if you want to write a cookbook, think about the story first.

Samin Nosrat saved up for seven months to be able to eat at the famous restaurant, Chez Panisse. The meal changed her life; she ended up working at Chez Panisse, and developed her own theory of what makes great food. (Spoiler alert, it’s salt, fat, acid and heat.)

So, what concept will you develop for your cookbook?

Concepts for your cookbook: everyone loves a story

Julie Powell didn’t write a bunch of recipes, she cooked her way through Julia Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She blogged her efforts, which became her book.

If you wish, you can use a process similar to Julie Powell’s: find a public domain cookbook and cook your way through it, perfecting the recipes for modern cooks as you do so.

Explore NYU’s huge collection of early American cookbooks published between 1800 and 1920; it’s a great resource to get you thinking.

Another archive worth exploring: An Archive of 3,000 Vintage Cookbooks Lets You Travel Back Through Culinary Time.

Create your concept, and write it down before you start writing and cooking.

I’m sure you’re thinking, HOW do you create a concept?

Consider: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen—it includes the concept, right in the title itself.

Study the cookbooks on your shelves and in bookstores: does each good cookbook have a concept? What is it? (Write down the concept–I’m convinced that writing boosts your creativity.)

Your concept can be simple.

Julie Powell’s contains:

  • Intrigue;
  • Engenders curiosity; and
  • Promises a lot of disasters (“1 tiny apartment”)…

Readers couldn’t resist it.

But what if you’re a fiction author, rather than nonfiction?

Everyone eats: give your fiction a boost with a recipe or two

Over the years, I’ve read dozens of novels with recipes in the back of the book, or right in the text itself.

Everyone eats. If one of your main characters cooks, include a few recipes to make the character more interesting and believable.

Write a cookbook and have fun: you may just write your way to a bestseller

Can you write a cookbook even if you can’t cook?

Why not? That’s a concept in itself: a non-cook discovers how to cook despite challenges… And prepares a wonderful meal for (an important, upcoming event.)

And yes, including a time constraint is important: suspense, remember.

Have fun, write and eat. 🙂

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