“You write cookbooks? Oh, how fun!”
“It can be,” I say—but never paint the full picture.
It is fun to work on a cookbook—at the start. That’s when you develop recipes, plan photographs and settings, and gather myriad props: casserole dishes, plates, glasses, silverware, linens, and the like. At this stage you can only visualize the completed product, when you’ll remark on its lovely photos and not recall a single fuss made over the best placement of utensils as the sunset’s “perfect light” faded or any drink having to be remade five times because of melting ice and droopy mint. (OK, a girl can dream.) Truly, all you can think of is how fulfilling it will be to inspire people to prepare and serve your cookbook’s recipes in charming, carefree fashion.
The most nettlesome part of the cookbook creation process is truly the most important: the testing of its recipes. And I completely understand why. No one wants to get all worked up about trying something new, only to spend good money on what will amount to Le Flop Royal. Having unwittingly made Le Flop Royal on occasion, I, too, have wanted to show up at the cookbook author’s home, culinary mess in hand, to discuss the situation.
The significance of having foolproof recipes was drilled into me while working as a food editor at a major magazine. (Fun fact: We once entertained the idea of calling for “1 banana, peeled” after receiving a complaint that a banana bread recipe’s texture was too tough. The cook had placed the entire banana in her food processor. “But you didn’t tell me not to!”)
But I digress. Join me as I now lift the lid on what it’s like to test recipes for a living. Here’s how I remember a particular experience testing a crawfish-cornbread dressing recipe for a publisher I had not worked with before (or since)—a publisher whose copy editor, I was told, “is right out of college and can’t wait to make her mark on this project!” (Make that multiple marks.) Let’s do this:
(Crazy-Making) Crawfish-Cornbread Dressing
1. Flip house upside down to find grandmother’s cornbread dressing recipe. Guess how much crawfish and Cajun seasoning you will need to make a big ol’ pan of golden goodness. Opt for two pounds of frozen, thawed crawfish tails, and 1 tablespoon of seasoning.
2. Stir yourself to drive to the biggest supermarket in your area. Purchase two packages of frozen crawfish tails. Avoid buying seasoning, since you know you have some at home.
3. Inspect each crawfish pack before placing in water to thaw. Realize you have two 12-ounce packages instead of two 16-ounce. Spread yourself thin by heading back to the store to get 8 more ounces—rather, 12 more ounces. Plan to adjust recipe accordingly.
4. Return home with crawfish. Begin to make dressing recipe. Look for Cajun seasoning. Yield to the fact that it is missing. Recall taking it to your friend’s Bloody Mary bar setup a few months back. Insert heavy sigh.
5. Return to the oven that is your car, baking in the blazing sun, to race back to supermarket. Discover your favorite brand of less-salty Cajun seasoning is not carried by that store. Head 12 miles west to an even bigger supermarket. Find seasoning and yell “Bingo!” Ignore stares.
6. Weave your way home through heavy after-work traffic. Since it is now 7 p.m., rinse away any notion of making crawfish-cornbread dressing.
7. Order Chinese food to be delivered. Hear husband ask why food is being delivered with so much food in the refrigerator. Shoot him exasperated look to set him straight, noting that if any food in the fridge is moved from its proper storage place, many curses will befall him. Later find food purposefully moved. Realize you have a brave hubby.
8. Begin the next morning by gathering all recipe ingredients, plus necessary bowls, serving utensils, and measuring cups/spoons, on your kitchen countertops. Place recipe printout to the side of stove for note-taking. Don apron. Prepare dish in earnest.
9. Bake casserole for expected length of time. Remove from oven. Notice casserole is unusually jiggly. Return it to oven to cook 20 more minutes. Remove it from oven again. Insert serving spoon into dressing to reveal an almost oatmeal-like consistency. Plan to try again tomorrow, this time with less chicken stock.
10. Serve the day’s “special” to husband for dinner. Notice him staring into his soup bowl incredulously. Reply with touch of sarcasm, “It’s crawfish porridge. Enjoy.”
11. Once the sun has again risen, increase vehicle odometer by 72 miles and spend an equal amount of dough to purchase everything needed to remake the recipe. Adjust any worry that it won’t work by finding it does. Gleefully place Crawfish-Cornbread recipe with notations in your working binder for future reference. Move on to the next recipe and the next, retesting each one as needed.
12. Sit at computer for days on end to input recipe edits. Email document to editor. Brace for what will follow in a couple of weeks.
13. Receive reply from editor. Nervously open. Keep eyes from watering after being flooded by a sea of questions pertaining to the first recipe: the Crawfish-Cornbread Dressing. “Can this be made in individual ramekins? If so, how many should be used, and what size(s)? How would using them affect the current cooking temperature and time? Also, can the dressing be made in advance and frozen? If so, how would you properly cover it? Then, at what temperature should it be baked? Also, how long will it cook if thawed first—and at what temperature? (BTW, how long will it take to thaw?) Oh—how long will casserole leftovers keep in the refrigerator? Can the leftovers be frozen? If so, for how long? Should they be reheated in the oven or microwave? If so, at what temperature and how long? Sorry for all the questions!!!”
14. Repair to bedroom with ice pack on head. Cover self with duvet. Chill.
15. Address similar questions for nearly every recipe in the book. Lose touch with your spouse, your family, and, at times, reality.
16. Ultimately receive galleys of edited, designed cookbook to inspect it for any errors. Find that the instructions for the Crawfish-Cornbread Dressing recipe requires “1 cup” of salt instead of “1 teaspoon.” Highlight this and other necessary changes in the most vivid shades of yellow and red. Reread entire galley for good measure. Return obsessively reviewed file to editor. Follow by sleeping for 14 hours without stirring, until waking up in cold sweat about that 1-cup-of-salt business. Hope for the best.
17. Pay bills that have piled up. Reply to emails sent to you two months prior and calculate that at least one person is no longer on speaking terms with you.
18. Four months after regaining your wits and losing your nervous tic, delight to find a box of five freshly printed cookbooks have been delivered to your home. Shake while turning the pages. Relish the joy of future positive reviews. Have friend at book club tell you her favorite recipe is the Crawfish-Cornbread Dressing. Thank her. Then, on drive home, hope the comment was not a backhanded compliment. Rush to cookbook. Check that recipe does not call for 1 cup of salt. It does not. Once more, cover and chill.
19. Begin planning next cookbook. Watch for worried look on husband’s face. Ignore.
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In our 2022 essay series, author Denise Gee shares memories and personal tales that celebrate the inimitable joys and escapades of Southern life. A Natchez, Mississippi, native, she is the author of six acclaimed books on Southern entertaining and design. Denise has worked for decades as a writer, editor, and stylist for magazines including Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens, and Coastal Living—and now, Southern Lady. She and her photographer-husband, Robert Peacock, make their home in McKinney, Texas. For more, visit denisegee.com.
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