I never imagined I would write a cookbook, let alone four (with a fifth in the works). I am a newspaper reporter by profession, and after earning my graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University I worked at several newspapers, in New Jersey, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. This was before food writing was considered a serious pursuit (except if you were a restaurant critic)—before Michael Pollan’s books, before food policy was routinely front-page news, and certainly before food blogging exploded onto the scene. So I wrote about everything but food, it seems, from school board elections to bizarre suburban murders. I had a stint as a health and fitness writer in which I wrote tangentially about food by writing about nutrition. For a few years I was a senior writer at a biweekly newspaper called The Chronicle of Philanthropy, in which I wrote about the nonprofit world and profiled wealthy philanthropists.
I loved my work, but when I got home at the end of the day I always found myself flipping through cookbooks and playing around at the stove. Over the years, collecting cookbooks had quietly turned into an obsession and my collection had grown from a few during my college days into dozens, and then dozens more.
That I was so food-focused is no surprise. I grew up in an Italian family, and good food was as important as, say, a good education. My mom was born and raised in Chieti, in Italy’s beautiful, rugged Abruzzo region. My dad was born in the U.S. but both his parents were from small towns south of Rome. My mother had my sister and me shaping ravioli and cappelletti and other whimsical pasta shapes by the time we could see over the kitchen counter. We spent our summers in Rome and on the Adriatic coast of Abruzzo. My dad was a master at planning trips all around the Italian peninsula—and these trips always centered around finding great food and great wine. I still remember the first time I had ribollita in the Tuscan countryside, the first time I tasted inky-black cuttlefish noodles in Venice, the first time I ate handmade orecchiette in Puglia. These memories have stayed with me throughout the decades.
In 2001, when my kids were young, I left my fulltime job so I could be home for them. It was then that I decided, somewhat spontaneously and irrationally, to reinvent myself as a food writer. I had connections at various newspapers, friends and editors who knew my work, and so I pitched stories to them and began to get published. In 2004, after attending the inspiring Food Writers’ Symposium at the Greenbrier, I wrote my first cookbook proposal, for The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy. To my amazement (and delight), it was picked up by Chronicle Books, whose editor I had met at the symposium.
Writing cookbooks is my dream job, because it combines my love for research and writing with my love for Italian food, culture, and cooking. My biggest challenge as a writer of Italian cookbooks is finding something new and relevant to say about a subject that has already been extensively explored and written about. Think about it—people have been traveling to and writing about Italy for centuries: historians, artists, poets, archeologists, and of course, food lovers. When my publisher asked me to write a proposal for a book about pasta I was skeptical. Lord knows there’s been a lot written on that subject! But that’s the miraculous thing about Italy. This small peninsula has been trod upon by so many millions of people who have wound their way through the hilltop towns and ancient cities and up and down the coasts, and yet, there are still discoveries to be made, secrets and treasures to be unearthed.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: In 2009, when I was researching The Glorious Pasta of Italy, I returned to my mother’s native region of Abruzzo, and ended up in a small valley in a part of the region that I had not been to before. I was befriended by a gentleman who is something of a food authority in the area. He introduced me to an extraordinary pasta called macccheroni alla molinara, named for the wives of the flour millers who once populated in the valley. It’s a long, fat noodle that is hand-stretched and rolled into a loop that is 3 meters or more end-to-end. The stretched noodle is wrapped into a coil, cooked in a big pot of boiling water, and then dressed with meat sauce. My new friend took my family to a restaurant that specializes in this dish, and the chef kindly gave my daughter and me an impromptu lesson on how to make it. Incredibly, the original recipe dates back to the 13th Century and was a special dish prepared for royalty. In all my years of spending my summers in Abruzzo, I had never come across this kind of pasta before. It was eye opening, and inspiring.
I find that in writing my cookbooks I use my reporting skills every bit as much as I did when I was working at newspapers. It’s important to remember that the best food writing comes not from sitting in front of your computer screen waiting for inspiration to strike, but by getting out there, by talking to people, by observing them in the kitchen, by letting them tell their stories.
In fact, I believe this is one reason why my books have found an audience. There are other Italian cookbook authors who have bigger name recognition than I do. So I have had to find a niche in a crowded market. I think I’ve managed to do it because my books are personal. I tell stories in my head notes (the text that accompanies each recipe). I want people to know why I am including a particular recipe in one of my books. Take that extraordinary noodle, maccheroni alla molinara. Think about how much a reader or a cook would be missing if he or she did not know the story behind that recipe. I love knowing a recipe’s back-story, and I know many others do as well.
The world of cookbook writing and publishing has changed, even in the last six years since my first book was released. Publishers are making less money; there is a lot of competition and there are fewer deals to be had. Authors have to work harder than ever to publicize their work and to stand out in a crowded field. The changes are coming fast and there is a lot of uncertainty in the business. I keep hearing and reading about the “demise” of the print cookbook in the face of apps and iPads and e-books. At the same time, it seems to me more people than ever are seeking— and getting—those coveted book deals. Some people grumble that there are too many cookbooks, and indeed, now more than ever, anyone who wants to can self-publish a cookbook. But in my opinion, there is always room for a new voice, a fresh perspective, whether it’s in a book or on a blog. I know this sounds naïve, but if you have genuine passion for your subject, it will shine through.
Something I’ve learned: Writing cookbooks is NOT a good way to get rich, but it has made my life richer.
Author photo is by Olga Berman
Book cover is by France Ruffenach
Maccheroni alla Molinara is by France Ruffenach
Now in bookstores: The Glorious Pasta of Italy. Author of The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy, and Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style, named one of the 25 best cookbooks of the year by the editors of Food and Wine.