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What goes on behind the scenes of a cookbook?

Diana Henry

Diana Henry is a highly-respected food writer and cookbook author. Her 7th cookbook, A Change of Appetite has just been published in the UK and will be published in the USA in June.  Wanting to eat more "healthy" food Diana set out to explore exactly what that means, and made sure the food was also delicious.  She wrote an excellent post on her blog about the process involved in creating the cookbook.  With her kind permission, we are excerpting it here.  Go to Diana's blog for the full article - it really should be read by everyone who loves cookbooks.

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What goes on behind the scenes of a cookbook?

Books don't come out of nowhere. I have never thought, 'Oh, time for another one, what should I write about next?' They always grow out of something in my life.

Food from Plenty came out of a particular time. I started writing it pre-credit crunch, but a feeling that we had to tighten belts (and value our food more) was already in the air. Salt, Sugar, Smoke was the result of an obsessive interest in preserving, a personal desire to be able to do it better and to understand the science of it. And it allowed me to try out ideas for jam and jelly recipes I'd had in my head for a long time. Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, my first book, was the result of years (including many when I wasn't a food writer) of collecting recipes from areas of the world - the Middle East, North Africa - that had fascinated me since childhood. It was meant to convey the magic of ingredients and dishes that were, to me, rather otherworldly. Cook Simple was the fruit of a new attitude towards cooking I developed - of necessity - when I had my first child. There's a lot of bunging things in the oven. It isn't quick cooking, but it is effortless cooking.

A Change of AppetiteMy new book, A Change of Appetite, came about for several reasons. First I noticed that both friends and readers were asking me what they could do to eat more 'healthily'. They wanted to increase their intake of vegetables. They needed ideas for what to do with plain bits of protein, a tuna steak or a turkey breast, as they were rapidly running out of inspiration. Since their daily diets sounded at best puritan and at worst grim, I felt I had to come to the rescue. Then my doctor, alarmed at my blood pressure, told me to lose weight and I didn't want to revert to yo-yo dieting. Finally my father, completely out of the blue, was diagnosed with cancer. After years of rolling my eyes when anyone mentioned 'healthy eating', I decided to find out what, exactly, the term meant.

It sounds a bit pretentious to say that books develop organically, but they do. First you get the kernel of an idea, then you start to talk about it to friends and family. Are they interested in the same area? Do they need information on it? Would it excite them? You approach the whole thing as if you were making a scrapbook (I used to do lots of projects in scrapbooks as a child and this really isn't much different). You start to read. With A Change of Appetite I started first with food journalist Hattie Ellis' book What to Eat? Then I got stuck into The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman's book Food Matters. By the time I'd finished these two I was hooked on the subject. With this book in particular, the research stretched ahead almost limitlessly, but you eventually have to call time on it.

...  As well as background research and recipe ideas the most nebulous and exciting part of a book is bubbling away, as if it's almost underground, the whole time. It's the feel you want the book to have. This is the hardest thing to articulate. And it's difficult to pin down as it doesn't yet exist. I often think it's like grappling with a fish. You can see it and it's sparkling and alive and gasping for air but you can't quite get hold of it. Every so often you have to make yourself stop the research and just look at pictures, searching for those that express moods or a certain feel. I go through magazines, search the internet, go to films and exhibitions that have absolutely nothing to do with food. I pull out lots of bits of reference - even bits of paper with a certain texture - and gradually put these all together.

Change of Appetite contents

... The recipe testing is in many ways the most straightforward part of a cookbook. You just get on and cook. I always intend to do this neatly, keeping notes in a big book. In reality I am always grabbing used envelopes and bits of scrap paper. People ask how the testing is done and the answer is very boring, I literally stand there and measure everything as it's used and scribble it down. If I'm being sensible I transfer it immediately to the laptop once I'm done. I never write down the recipe method, I'll remember it, but I need to note down each spoonful and every gram. Sometimes I get distracted or the doorbell rings and I can't remember whether I used 2 tbsp or 3 tbsp of something. That means that it has to be done again. More than once I have looked into the bin when I was testing at 2am to see how many eggs I have used by counting the shells. And don't even get me on to the washing up. That is easily the worst part of my job.

... What's the best thing about producing these books? Apart from having a book at the end of it all, something you can actually hold and read and cook from, it's the creativity that you share with other people. And it's the joy that comes from making something with people who are perfectionist. I am amazed by how much people care about their work and by how talented they are. It really moves me. When I worked in television everyone's name was on the credits. The producer's is usually last but every single person gets a mention. It never seems fair that only the name of the author is on the front of a book. A book is never just written. It is made.

For the full article, go to dianahenry.co.uk.

4 Comments

  • JFM  on  3/14/2014 at 4:57 AM

    I got the book last week - and it's really good. I especially like the pictures, as in her previous books.

  • ellabee  on  3/14/2014 at 2:48 PM

    Diana Henry's an outstanding food writer. All the posts on the 'Journal' section of her site are worthwhile; don't miss her first entry from Oct 2013, on the cookbooks and food writing that influenced her most.

  • Jane  on  3/14/2014 at 4:47 PM

    ellabee - Diana has given us permission to excerpt that post too so we will run that soon.

  • stardust4300  on  3/22/2014 at 5:39 AM

    I find Ms Henry to be down to earth and I like that. I am so much like her when she said that she writes down ingredients but not the method. I do the same thing. I know how to write the method anytime but if I don't write the ingredients as I go I will absolutely forget something and may not notice it. That would be embarrassing. Great interview!

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