A few months ago we talked with Laura Pazzaglia about her cookbook writing methods. I’m now pleased to present Nancy Vienneau from Good Food Matters, here to talk about her cookbook, the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook.
Throw out what you think you know about potlucks — six kinds of bean salad, a few tired casseroles, and heavy desserts — and find out how Nancy put together a book of community-building stories and mouth-watering recipes:
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for the Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook?
Nancy: It came from my life! In June 2009, my friend, urban farmer Gigi Gaskins and I began hosting a monthly potluck devoted as much to fostering community as to sharing good food. Our rules were simple: we would gather on the third Thursday of each month at 6:30pm. Each guest was asked to bring a dish of his or her choice. No scripted menu, no assigned dishes, no RSVP. We cast a wide net, inviting people from all over Nashville. We had no idea that it would become so embraced, but quickly, the potluck took on its own life. The food that people brought was fresh and seasonal, creative and delicious-the antithesis of many potlucks we’ve all had the misfortune to attend, populated with mystery casseroles.
We kept a journal-at each potluck, people would sign in, and write down what they brought. Over time, I realized that it held a wealth of ideas, recipes, and a cookbook waiting to be written.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Nancy: I think that conceiving the outline of a cookbook is akin to the creation of a tantalizing menu.
Many cookbooks are arranged into categories: soups, salads, entrees and so forth. I wanted to structure mine differently. I wanted to tell the story of our community potluck, how and why it formed, and let readers know something about the people who attend. Part of the book’s mission is to inspire others to start their own.
In weaving this narrative into a book of recipes, I envisioned each chapter as a month, with its respective story, menu, and recipes. That fit with our potluck’s local, seasonal focus. The chapters would carry readers through the cycle of a year. Once I had that framework in place, seeing the book as a whole, I could go forward: write the proposal, and ultimately fill in the pieces.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Nancy: There were three parts to this project: stories, menus, recipes. I knew the stories, but needed to choose the dishes I’d like to present. Once selected, I could fashion them into menus that fit with the potluck stories I wanted to tell.
As a chef and “recovered caterer,” I already had developed my recipes for the project. I used our potluck journal as a resource. I also have a food blog wherein I chronicled our gatherings. And I quizzed many of our attendees.
Over 30 people, all Third Thursday potluckers, contributed 150 recipes. It was a challenge to wrangle those recipes from them. Testing the recipes, tweaking them were crucial components. After that, I needed to write them in a consistent style, clear to even a novice cook.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Nancy: Each day is a little different. Some days I am anchored to my desk-reading and writing; others are spent in the kitchen, testing recipes, taking notes. Now that I am in the promotional phase of the project—the cookbook has been out since last summer—I’m often preparing some treat to accompany a presentation. You can’t sell a cookbook without feeding folks!
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Nancy: Reading can be a writer’s best tool; I have a number of friends and colleagues whose work I relish. It’s a good practice to get outside your head. I have my own library of cookbooks that span 40 years. It’s helpful to thumb through them with fresh eyes, study the recipes and head notes, their style and voice.
On words: having an online thesaurus at my fingertips has been invaluable. I’ve written a poem called “Food Writer’s Rant” (it’s all adjectives!) because I think that language about food can become tired.
Food itself is a powerful tool. A bite of toast and jam, a sip of ginger ale can evoke emotions, and trigger memories.
Bonus question: Cookbooks have exploded in popularity — How do you make a new cookbook stand out in a crowded market?
Nancy: First we eat with our eyes. It’s important to have images to both welcome and entice the reader; the photography needs to capture the feeling of the book. The cover of Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook is a colorful overhead shot of a full table of potluck dishes; an inside shot shows the potluck in action-hands grabbing plates, carving ham, serving cake. Food is celebratory, and food is messy!
Approachability is another factor. As much as we admire the work of fine chefs, we are less likely to cook like them. I don’t want my readers to feel intimidated by the recipes.
People who love cookbooks enjoy reading them like novels. What defines a good cookbook is not just its body of recipes. It’s the people behind the recipes—the farmer, the gardener, the butcher at the market, the neighbor down the street. We want to make those connections.
People are as hungry for story as they are for a good meal.