Anyone can write a cookbook. At least, that’s the consensus of more than one writer.

Patrick McManus, co-author of “Whatchagot Stew” had quite a bit to say about writing cookbooks.

“Back about 1969,” writes McManus (somewhat tongue-in-cheek), “I came across one of those scary statistical articles in the newspaper. It predicted that within twenty years one out of every four people in the United States would either have written a cookbook or be a carrier…”

McManus wasn’t worried about himself because he didn’t belong to the high-risk group—people who cook. He figured it could never happen to him; the closest he’d ever come to cooking was opening a can of sardines.

In October of 1980, McManus explained, he visiting friends. While the husband bustled happily in the kitchen, wife whispered tearfully to McManus that her husband had gone from learning to boil water to writing a cookbook. She said he was at that very moment ‘cooking up’ a recipe to test on them—his Pheasant Italiano.

‘Pheasant Italiano,’ McManus replied, “Sounds delicious.”

‘Don’t ever let him hear you say that!” the wife hissed. “It will only encourage him.”

With great fanfare at dinner, the husband served his Pheasant Italiano,
And, reports McManus, his taste buds instantly melted into euphoria. Never before had they known such ecstasy.

‘Like it?’ the chef asked.

‘Not bad,” McManus replied. “Could use a little salt and pepper, though.’

‘Oh yeah,’ he snarled, ‘well maybe you should write your own damn cookbook, how about that?’

It’s odd,” comments McManus, “how little offhand suggestions plant themselves in some remote but fertile recess of the brain and begin to grow undetected by the host organism until it’s too late…”

“By 1985,” McManus continues, “the dire predictions of 1969 had come to pass. One out of every four persons in the United States was now either a cookbook writer or a carrier. Their numbers were growing exponentially. Carl Sagan wrote in PARADE magazine that unless a serum was developed soon, within a few years all the land surface on earth would be covered with cookbooks to a depth of twelve feet.

‘There will be billions and billions of them,’ Sagan wrote, ‘until the supply of known recipe reserves is totally exhausted and the writers will be reduced to stealing each other’s recipes and merely changing the names. Cooks will prepare ‘Chicken Bombay’ only to discover that it is the same as the old Chicken Kiev’. Chaos will reign! Sagan named the impending catastrophe ‘The Souffle Effect.’…..”

And with this, McManus goes on to explain the origin of “Whatchagot Stew” and how he and his sister happened to write a cookbook.

“My urge to write a cookbook” says McManus “increased day by day, which was peculiar. I didn’t know how to cook. I didn’t want to learn to cook. I had never even read a cookbook. Why on earth did I feel this compulsion to write one? True, there was a certain amount of peer pressure. Most of my friends had written their own cookbooks…I asked my therapist about the compulsion. He said there was no known cure for the malady, but he’d sell me an autographed copy of his SCHIZOID MANIC-DEPRESSIVES’ COOKBOOK…” (From “Whatchagot Stew” by Patrick F. McManus and Patricia McManus Gass, published by Henry Holt and Company, 1989).

Well, if it’s any consolation to McManus, Carl Sagan’s prediction about the land surface of the earth being covered with cookbooks never came true (DARN!) and a lot of people continue to write them.

Nika Hazelton, author of many cookbooks, had something to say about them her book “I COOK AS I PLEASE”, published in 1974 by Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers.

“Cookbooks,” says Hazelton, “are another of the subjects I muse about as I wash dishes or perform the hundred and one mindless occupations that are part of kitchen life—putting away dishes, cleaning silver, lining kitchen drawers with clean paper. I write cookbooks myself, endeavoring to earn a living, but it still beats me why people buy so many new cookbooks when they could cook just as well from the ones they have…”

(Strange…I have never mused about cookbooks while washing dishes).

Which isn’t the point, of course, and those who collect cookbooks could have told Ms. Hazelton that. We don’t always buy cookbooks to cook from them – although that can be an added bonus. We buy them to read, and we do. I’ve often heard people say they “read cookbooks the way other people read novels”, with astonishment, as though no one ever before or ever since would do such a strange thing.

Truth is, cookbook collectors have nightstands and the floor by the bed and every available space in their living rooms and dining rooms piled high with cookbooks clamoring to be read. Sometimes when I turn out the light and turn over in bed, stacks of books that were scattered all over the bed fall noisily to the floor while the cats and dog dash for cover. I even keep a few cookbooks in the back seat of the car…in case I need something to read while stuck in traffic.

“Who writes and buys all these books and why?” asked Hazelton.

“Professional food writers and some professional cooks write cookbooks for the same reason anthropology professors publish anthropology papers, namely, because it is their job. Cookbooks are good for keeping one’s name before the public eye, leading to reviews, radio and TV appearances….As for the nonprofessionals, some write cookbooks because they have found that some food ideas and recipes work out well or because they have a good contemporary idea. Very often these are one-shot books, even excellent ones. But most cookbooks,” claims Hazelton, “as far as I can see are written because it is so fashionable… Cooking is like writing; most people think they could do it better if they just had a little time….”

Nika Hazelton had much more to say on this subject; you will have to find a copy of “I COOK AS I PLEASE” to read the rest. Hazelton also noted that while she had over 2,000 cookbooks, she only cooked from about twenty of those. That sounds about right to me. I think I have about ten thousand cookbooks (no one wants to count them) – but I cook from perhaps a dozen or so.

As noted by Patrick McManus, you don’t even have to be a writer to write a cookbook. Lots of celebrities write cookbooks—for charitable causes or just because they enjoy cooking. If your name is, say, Vincent Price and you write a cookbook , it’s a shoo-in that a lot of people are will buy the book whether they collect cookbooks or not. They are curious to learn what Vincent Price has to say about cooking.

Naming your cookbook is important. Something catchy helps. I have a cookbook called “Turnip Greens In the Bathtub” that I bought entirely on the strength of the title. I don’t even eat turnip greens.

Most often, the title says it all – The Casserole Cookbook, Cooking for One, Cooking for Two, Dinner for Eight, the Five Ingredient…Four Ingredient…Three Ingredient…Two Ingredient cookbooks . There are cookbooks aimed for losing weight, lowering your cholesterol, cutting out fat, salt, or sugar…there are cookbooks on Desserts or cookbooks on one particular dessert ingredient – like chocolate! I must have over a dozen chocolate cookbooks. There are a lot of comfort food cookbooks making the rounds these days. While researching for another article, I realized there are a lot of “Bride” cookbooks out there. (And here I always thought the Betty Crocker or JOY OF COOKING cookbooks were the Bride’s cookbooks – I know I have given enough of them to newlyweds over the past forty years). Also popular–cookbooks with “America” or “American” in the title – these fill an entire bookcase in my house. Cookbooks with Christmas in the title are a sure thing when the holidays draw near.

Then there are all of the Community, Church, and Junior League cookbooks – many of them with catchy titles like “America Discovers Columbus” (Junior League of Columbus Ohio), “Say Ah-h-h-h-!” (the Woman’s Auxiliary to the San Diego Medical Society), “Some Like it South! (Junior League of Pensacola, Florida), “Feast of Eden” (Junior League of Monterey County, California), “Women Who Can Dish It Out” (the Junior League of Springfield, Missouri) and “Standing Ovations” (Junior Board of the Tri-City Symphony in Davenport Iowa). What’s in a name? Everything! (And if you are a junior league and you publish a cookbook for Christmas – that’s a double whammy)

People would ask me “Why don’t you write a cookbook?”

Actually, it took 20 years to get the Schmidt family cookbook published. The idea was hatched in Florida in 1984 at a family reunion but took years to get family members to submit recipes. “Grandma’s Favorite” (dedicated to our paternal grandmother) was published in 2004.

It was much easier in the early ‘70s when my children’s school PTA decided to compile a cookbook. One of my sons brought home a flyer announcing the PTA’s intention. I immediately called the PTA lady whose name was on the flyer – and volunteered my expertise. No, I had never put together a cookbook. But I collected cookbooks and knew how to type. A few weeks later, a group of PTA ladies gathered at my home one January day to discuss the project.

As we sat around my dining room table discussing the “Project”, I glanced outside and saw my two babies, Chris – who was three – and Kelly, who was two – cavorting naked in the sprinklers in the back yard.

I was so mortified, and thought I’d die of embarrassment. I knew my husband was in the garage working. I leaned out the back door and chirped, “Jim! Oh Jim! Can you get the kids out of the sprinklers?”

“Get them yourself!” he snarled back at me. “I’m busy!”

So that was how I was introduced to the PTA. They’d collect the recipes and bring them to me, where I was stuck at home with two toddlers and a home job typing insurance policies. I’d type up the recipes and a few months later, we sent a package off to a cookbook publisher. Soon, we had boxes of “RECIPE ROUNDUP” to sell for $3.00 a copy. We didn’t check any of the recipes – other than to call the recipe donor occasionally to ask about an ingredient or the correct amount. We were such novices, but oddly enough, it has withstood the test of time – and oh, what fun we had putting that cook book together! And for what it’s worth, I went on to write the school newsletter for five years and two of the women who worked on the cookbook project became lifelong friends.

Nika Hazelton also believes that having cookbooks, or at least reading them, is a middle-class thing, which does not concern the female population in general. “This does not mean that women do not have recipes,” she adds. “On the contrary they have lots of recipes…Where do they come from? They are recipes from magazines, newspapers, publicity releases, friends, relatives, free recipes—irresistible to clip or rip out and keep. The keeping is not done in lovely orderly files, card indexes, scrapbooks or what not, but the collection is dumped into a big or small drawer, a shoe box, an envelope, helter skelter….”

Hazelton says she keeps hers in a covered basket. She thinks that when her life becomes more orderly, the recipes can be sorted and filed and “the chaos transformed into dazzling order”.

Well, I gave up keeping clippings in a kitchen drawer decades ago. For one thing, sometimes clippings would slide down behind the drawer and get jammed in the back, never to be found until someone took the whole drawer out and peeked inside (this usually only happened when the drawer wouldn’t shut anymore or one of the boys’ white rats or a kitten would climb into a kitchen drawer and disappear). For another, I don’t have enough kitchen drawers to accommodate all the clippings. They completely fill two of large boxes. I am constantly attempting to catch up on the recipes – to clip them neatly and paste them onto either 3×5 or 4×6” cards.

But I would say to Nika Hazelton or Patrick McManus, to paraphrase the Duchess of Windsor you can’t be too rich or too thin or have too many recipes and/or cookbooks.

Which reminds me, even the Duchess of Windsor wrote a cookbook! (Not to be confused with the current Duchess of Windsor whoalso wrote a cookbook for Weight Watchers).

When Edward VIII abdicated the throne in the 1930s, to be with the woman he loved, the Windsors went off to the South of France or the Bahamas, where the Duchess, nee Wallace Simpson, penned “Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor”.

Although I find it difficult to believe that the Duchess, who was partial to the finer things in life and liked to have the Duke paint her toenails, ever wielded a spatula, she claimed to have had her own collection of cookbooks which contained many southern recipes. Presumably, the royalties from her cookbook paid for some bottles of nail polish for her tootsies. Those Windsors lived the rest of their lives in exile. Many historians speculate that Wallace Simpson never really forgave the former King Edward VIII for abdicating the throne–Wallace had her eye on the crown! And it would appear that, if Wallace Simpson couldn’t be royalty, she could at least collect royalties…from her cookbook, at least!

Which just goes to show you, – anybody can write a cookbook!

Happy Cooking—and Happy Cookbook Collecting!


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