We had a cover before we had a book.
My friends created the cover image, and my husband, Joey, transferred it to a silkscreen for printing. Late at night after the kids were tucked into bed, we taped newspaper to the kitchen table and printed the black-and-white design on the inside of a cereal box. The first print went up on the wall, and it still remains there. We printed on more desconstructed cereal boxes, hot-glued them back together (this time, inside out), and then the tucked the book proposal inside. Just looking at that cover helped us to believe that there might someday be a book. The cover, like the book I envisioned, came out of our kitchen in the midst of our lives, specifically, between dinner cleanup and school lunch prep for the next day. I looked at the image, and it made me want to write the book.
Fortunately, the package (as well as its contents) also convinced Rob Weisbach that I should write the book. He came on board as my agent, and, over the next few months, the book became clearer and we reworked the proposal. As the book proposal solidified, the cover shifted to reflect the evolution of my idea. Again, Joey and I set up on the kitchen table and printed on the inside of cereal boxes. We put our hopes into each box, along with the proposal and a bag of granola, and off they went into the mail they went.
I’ll spare you the suspense and say right out that the lucky book found its home at Clarkson Potter. During the year we spent making the book, that first cover stayed with me and kept me envisioning the finished book. The “real” cover, however, remained a mystery.
From what I hear, there is no standard process of for making images for a cookbook, and each book takes its own path. Sometimes the author handles the photography; other times, the publisher leads. Images for some books are photographed entirely in a warehouse in New York over the course of a few days, and others happen in real kitchens or other locations over several months. In the case of The Homemade Pantry, we shot the photos as I wrote the manuscript. The extraordinary Jennifer May, photographer for The Art of Living According to Joe Beef (Ten Speed Press) and The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat (Clarkson Potter), spent so many days with us over the course of Fall of 2010, that she became part of our family. We wanted the book to truly reflect our lives and the food that we eat, and so many of the photos come directly out of our kitchen. The food, the hands, the bites, and (need I say it?) the kids are all mine.
In addition to our home time, we spent four days in the food stylist Jessica Bard’s kitchen, working on the photographs of the individual recipes. My friend Kari Chapin joined us, armed with crates overflowing with vintage plates and patterned linens. Jessica turned out everything from toaster pastries to sandwich bread to fish sticks at an amazing rate, and, together, we all created the images.
Although I did my best to act fairly professional at these food shoots, underneath it all, I was more like a six-year year-old on her birthday. As much as I’ve loved working on The Homemade Pantry, writing is lonely work. I am happiest in the midst of collaboration, and these days of creating the images stand out as some of the best in this the process. So when I learned that we had to return to Jessica’s kitchen to reshoot for the cover, I couldn’t wait to get started. And if the printing of that original cover had given me enough hope to create a book proposal, the process of a final cover had such a sense of delicious reality to it. This would be the face of the book, and we were all eager to see it.
Although it had been nearly a year since I’d been in Jessica’s kitchen, it was easy to slip right back into the process. I inspected (and then, of course, oohed and ahhhed over) the full baking rack of goodies. Jessica’s assistant, Theresa, went to gather Stephanie Huntwork, the book’s designer, from the train station. We sat and had our first of many cups of strong coffee of the day (along with a few treats stolen from the baking rack), and then we set up the first shot.
It was a day of meticulous cracker placement and careful pastry biting. I ironed blue fabric, and then we laid the crackers. I ironed the red fabric, and then we transferred the crackers. Iron, place, repeat. Iron, place, repeat. Then, lunch.
The afternoon was all about toaster pastries. Oozing with jam, dolled up with sugar, I held them in my hands and tried not to succumb to the urge to eat beyond my one, perfect bite. Stephanie swatted the mosquitoes away from me, and I willed my fingers to stay perfectly still.
One of the last shots of the day was one that captured the toaster pastries from above. They were laid out on a surface that I had built to look like part of a picnic table. As I set the toaster pastries on the blue wood, I was totally unconvinced. I had my heart set on crackers for the cover image, and I was sure that we had gotten our shot hours ago. Jen set up her camera above the pastries, and in moments, the image photo was on her computer screen.
That was it. I took a careful bite of one of the toaster pastries, and she snapped another shot. It got even better. Stephanie put the title image over the photo, and there it was. It was almost as if it had been there all along, waiting for us to find it. I was struck by the similarity to the moments after the birth of my children, when we were so excited, but even more, curious to see the details of their faces. After all that waiting and growing, I saw the book in front of me and thought, “Oh! So that’s what you look like!”
Just this week, a friend asked me how I felt about the cover of the book. I had to admit that after all of the meetings, conversations, and (yes!) debates, I couldn’t imagine the book with any other cover. I had wanted the final cover to fill me with as much hope and optimism as like that first image that we printed on our kitchen table. That was a tall order, but it the final cover photo does just that. When I look at those toaster pastries, I think of my friend, Molly, hand-cutting the cook stove out of paper for the original cover. I see Joey printing on cereal boxes. I see Jennifer May’s extraordinary image, Jessica Bard’s perfectly jammy toaster pastries, Stephanie Huntwork’s skilled design, and input from so many other people at Clarkson Potter. It’s all there.
The cover also makes me want to make a batch of toaster pastries. And that, in the end, is the best part.