I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before now or anything, but I’ve written a book! You’ll have to forgive me getting meta and writing about writing a book but I’m still in post book writing withdrawal and indulging myself with as many blog posts as possible before Slow Cooked comes out on November 6th.
After people congratulated me on the book deal (and believe me, nothing gets people more excited than a proper paper book even in these days of blogs and e-readers), they generally wanted to know two things. Firstly, how do you get published and secondly, how do you actually write a book from scratch?
Getting published is as personal as what you are writing and every path will be different. Mine involved using my previous blog North/South Food to develop my writing and recipe testing skills and shaping my style into something people paid attention to. In many ways, it’s the epitome of practise making perfect. From there came the Observer Food Monthly and then the attention of publishers.
By the time I was talking to Ebury about writing a book, I’d teamed up with my fantastic agent at Hardman Swainson who helped me negotiate the practicalities of a book contract, held my hand emotionally and answered a multitude of questions about publishing in general. Along with my fantastic editor, their encouragement and enthusiasm got me to the place where a slow cooker book could happen.
I’ve been a huge fan of the slow cooker for ages as its low energy style of cooking (both electricity and exertion wise) is perfect for my spoonie lifestyle, but I’d never found the inspiration I needed to take it beyond the ubiquitous stews. Most stuff I read about it seemed to be about simply fuelling yourself with stuff warmed up in the slow cooker rather than experimenting with ingredients, techniques and the genuine enjoyment of food. This is what I wanted from my slow cooker so I thought that rather than wait for someone else to do it, that was the book I would write.
With the idea at the back of my mind that Slow Cooked would be aimed at all the people the other books weren’t, like the retirees who are too busy all day to be chained to the stove, the students who don’t have great kitchen facilities, the 50 something men who’ve never really cooked before, the young couples with hectic lives and the people like me who can’t reliably use a standard kitchen all the time, the book started to take shape in both my mind and my Evernote folders
Every spare minute in between writing Recipes from Brixton Village went on research, which is a fancy way of saying I curled up in my pyjamas with a pile of books and my laptop and I read every single piece of information on slow cookers I could. I trawled through book reviews of the ones already out there, read a surprising amount of Mormon mommy blogs and awarded myself a large number of biscuit shaped awards for reading ALL the comments below the line I could find.
I had the notion that planning a book from start to finish before I’d written a word of it was incredibly difficult and anytime I tried to imagine the completed project, I felt myself getting panicky. So I applied a cook’s logic to it and concentrated on the individual ingredients rather than the finished dish, narrowing down around 400 ideas to 250 recipes within loose chapter structures. I was going to eat this elephant one bite at a time.
And oddly enough, the eating was the trickiest bit. I had 4 months to test those 250 recipes and see which ones made the grade. That meant that many of them were going to need to be tested several times. I needed people to eat the food I was cooking and strangely enough I couldn’t find enough volunteers nearby. Unlike usual recipe testing, the need for a slow cooker prevented me outsourcing a lot of it and so I needed people to taste what I made. For months I didn’t go anywhere without a bag of takeaway containers crammed with food, all to be exchanged for feedback on it. I even took the food to the traders I had bought the ingredients from and they ate what I’d bought the day before.
My life revolved round two deadlines everyday. Shopping and washing up. The shopping was easy. I took my Hawaiian print shopping trolley and hit up the local shops in Brixton almost daily. I bought so much meat on certain weeks the butchers at Dombey’s enquired in all seriousness if I was doing Atkins. My local shop gave me a bulk price on eggs. And for all the in between bits I got to know my local Sainsbury’s delivery drivers by name. It did lead to me feeling a bit like a Fifties housewife, albeit without a pesky husband or kids to have to take time out to look after.
I did wish I had someone to help with the washing up though. By now I had six slow cookers on the go, often cooking two recipes a day in each. That’s a lot of slow cooker crock scrubbing, before you even get to all the things you need to measure out ingredients. If I’d had 6 pairs of measuring spoons and 12 spatulas to hand, it still wouldn’t have been enough. I was determined to simplify slow cooking anyway, but it became imperative to know when to sear meat or add steps into recipes when you’re working in that volume. I’ve tested to an inch of my life and you can do any of my recipes easily, with a minimum of washing up, probably while wearing still wearing your Marigolds and bleary eyed at the start or end of the day.
Once I’d counted my crocks in and out of the sink like a collection of baby birds, it was time for the easy bit: the writing. Sitting down at the laptop for a few hours of words was bliss. I applied the same one bite at a time mentality to the recipe writing as the rest of the book. I drafted up individual pieces one at a time and then once all of them were written, I went back and shuffled them into order and checked I hadn’t repeated myself.
My oracle was the whiteboard. Propped up in the living room, it listed everything I needed to do each day and each week. I started off with lists on pieces of paper but kept accidentally recycling them in fits of procrastination fuelled tidying up. Even I can’t lose a whiteboard no matter how hard I try. Last thing before bed each night, I ticked off what I’d achieved. I’m sure all those coloured pens and their reminder of GCSE revision timetables took years off me at a time that could have been quite stressful…
Between the start of November 2013 and the middle of March 2014, I cooked 250 dishes, many several times each, blazed through 10 pairs of rubber gloves, kept 6 slow cookers on the go all day, wrote over 100,000 words, sent inumerable tweets, received untold support and had the time of my life. I’ve got a beautiful book to show for it all and can’t wait to hear what you all think. As soon as I’d finished it, I wanted to do it all over again. Here’s hoping!