When a cookbook comes out, you see the finished product and the glory, and you don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of struggle, sacrifice, and hard work. Here’s my “proud mother hen” story about one author. It may surprise you.
In 2005 Romney (Nani) Steele worked at the San Francisco Ferry Building selling mache and working with the Cowgirl Creamery. A tall, single mom with a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry, she came to a Food Writer’s Conference I chaired, ostensibly to learn how to write a cookbook about salads.
Later I reviewed her cookbook proposal and sent her an email that said, in part,”You write like a confident published writer. That’s fantastic — don’t let go of that skill.”
She confessed to wanting to write a different, more difficult book. It was about growing up at Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur, as the granddaughter of the original owners, about art, family, nature and beauty, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. She wondered how to wrap her mind around the layers of a story that was more than a cookbook and less than a memoir, and included difficult stories.
I challenged her (nicely) to write that book instead. She took my class on book proposals, then hired me to coach her. Later we did a trade: in exchange for assisting me while I tested recipes for Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas, I continued working with her on the proposal.
When she finished the proposal, Nani came over one summer night with a jar of home-made marmalade for my agent, Carole Bidnick. They cooked a simple dinner of pesto pasta and tomato salad because I was on crutches with a sprained ankle. After the meal we sat on my bed and watched the introduction of The Sandpiper, staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, partially filmed at Nepenthe. Carole had been to Nepenthe and thought it was a magical place, like Shangri-La. She fell in love with Nani and got her a book deal at the end of 2007.
A few months later, Andrews-McMeel publisher Kirsty Melville met Nani and heard her physical vision for the book, which incorporates her uncle Kaffe’s fabrics, drawings by designers and artists, and archival photos.
Writing the book wasn’t easy (not that it ever is). There were family politics and she had to convince the restaurant to buy quantities of the book. The advance didn’t cover Nani’s rent and expenses for herself and her two teenage kids for very long. She freelanced as a food stylist and recipe developer, but as the economy tanked, her meager assignments didn’t pay the bills. Undetered, she relied on her credit card and kept going. Making dozens of round trips from Oakland to Big Sur in her ancient green Jetta, she took notes in the restaurant kitchen, talked with the old-timers, researched historic photographs, and slept in her grandmother’s log cabin where she was raised.
Nani turned in the manuscript in fall 2008 and recommended me when the publisher needed a freelancer to edit the book. Once the manuscript went off to the copy editor, Nani chose to involve herself more. She made and styled all the dishes for the color-drenched photographs by Sarah Remington. She worked with designer Lisa Berman (her choice) for months more, going page by page, matching historical images to colors and text, and words to photos, callouts and sidebars to achieve a book that represented her family’s story. She paid the grocery bills of recipe testers. Come summer and still no work, Nani sublet her apartment and moved to her mother’s house with her kids for a few weeks.
Finally, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur came out last week. It’s a gorgeous, hard-cover gift book and already a best-seller on Amazon. Epicurious.com chose it as one of the Best Cookbooks of 2009. The San Francisco Chronicle covered Nepenthe’s launch party.
Nani still has little work, and now little time for it. People assume she’s making a ton of money on the book, but it’s only a few dollars per copy. No matter. she’s forging ahead like a pro, lining up events to promote the book, blogging, Facebooking and Twittering, and enjoying her moment in the sun. She deserves every second.
Photo of Romney Steele by Doug McKechnie.