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Food-Writing For Beginners

A good place to start at is always the beginning. Food-books are either:

  • Practical Step-by-step garage-manuals or gastronomic bibles
  • Romantic Anything that includes an authorial voice
  • Historical Reprints of hallowed texts, serious food-studies with bibliography and footnotes

Now we've got that out of the way: anyone can write a recipe, which means that anyone can write a cookbook. I've been writing recipes for more than forty years – other things too, but mostly recipes – and what follows is a digest of what’s true now but probably wasn't when I began.   

Identify Your Strengths

To borrow art-speak (I was a natural-history artist before I began to write about cooking.)

The recipe-writer is the craftsman where everything is weighed, tested and fit-for-purpose.

The cookery-writer is the illustrator who includes a touch of atmosphere and a pinch of personality.

The culinary-historian is the curator, all about homework and making sure their references are right. 

I'm a floating voter myself, incapable of delivering a recipe for Yorkshire pudding without the need to add that a spoonful of snow (readily available in winter in the Dales) improves puffiness in what’s essentially a pancake batter shoved in the oven to take advantage of the availability of fuel for 19th century baking-ovens in a coal-mining area. There’s a reason why they kept coal in the bath-tub.You see the problem?

Find Your Unique Selling Point

Food-writers with specialist interests for personal reasons - dairy-free, diets for health, cooking for children – already have a USP, but generalists – omnivorous food-enthusiasts such as myself - need a recognisable voice. 

Among cookery-writers of my generation (I was born in WWII), Elizabeth David, a quintessentially romantic food-writer, wrote to convey atmosphere and emotion rather than accuracy and reliability. Her peppers cooked in olive oil are as memorable as Proust's tea-dipped madeleine. Her recipes rarely measured ingredients, methods were often cursory and her post-war audience, stuck with rationing under cold grey skies, could only dream of the flavours of Mediterranean hillsides.

Delia Smith offered accessibility and reliability: a Delia recipe works because it's thoroughly tested, avoids unfamiliar ingredients and requires no special skills. With Delia, no need to knuckle-out a strudel-dough or identify the edible corals inside a freshly-opened sea-urchin. 

Jane Grigson, the most stylish of writers, delivered a strong sense of place and purpose. Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery is a master-class in how to organise a recipe with wit, intelligence and historical accuracy, while her single-ingredient cookbooks Fish, Mushrooms, Vegetables have never been bettered. 

Find The Mission

Delia taught those who couldn't imagine themselves in the kitchen how to boil an egg, Elizabeth David persuaded her countrymen to look for the sunlit uplands and Jane Grigson managed to elevate the simple act of setting good things on the table to a subject worthy of academic study at the highest level. My own is easily identified  in the title of my first book, European Peasant Cookery. Based on my own experience of living and bringing up my young family in a remote valley in Andalucia in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, our neighbours, a self-sufficient community for whom farming was a way of life rather than a business for profit, grew sufficient crops to fill the store-cupboard, kept chickens and goats for milk and meat, ran iberico pigs and gathered firewood among the cork-oaks for cooking and heating. Cash was a crop like any other, useful but not essential. During our years in the valley it seemed to me that the knowledge my neighbours had accumulated over millennia, once lost, was gone for ever.

Work Ethic 

There must be good reason why you want to write about potatoes, soups, party-food or the one-pot dishes of Outer Mongolia – the reason why you’re uniquely qualified to write this particular book. There's no question that a celebrated chef will get a foot in a publisher’s door (and the services of a recipe-writer as collaborator), as will anyone with a show on tv or a blogger with half a million followers. The rest of us have to make a name for ourselves, and the wider your field of expertise the better. I’d be stuck for an income if all I ever wrote about was peasant cookery. There's nothing quite like a blog, a regular column or a tight deadline to prod a person out of their comfort-zone. In a forty-year career, I've taken work just because the publisher’s deadline was short and I needed the money. One such, Sacred Food, a world-wide overview of religious observance at table, could have taken a lifetime but was researched and written in six months! (Although admittedly I’d already written a volume on the festival-foods of Europe, so I knew where to get the knife in the hinge of the oyster). I never imagined that my first proposal for the book I’d always wanted to write would find a publisher – in the event, it found 3 bidders, all prepared to offer an advance that’d allow me to do the travelling. I was lucky, but a good proposal can still cut the mustard.

Finally...The Proposal

Publishers, to generalise, have the attention-span of a gnat. Provide a one-pager on who you are, a brief description of the book you want to write, target audience, similar publications, approx. number of recipes, chapter headings and estimated date of delivery. Append a chapter-introduction and 3-4 sample recipes.

Elisabeth Luard is an award-winning food writer, journalist and broadcaster. Her cookbooks include A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse, European Peasant Cookery and The Food of Spain and Portugal. She has written three memoirs, Family Life, Still Life and My Life as a Wife. She is currently the Trustee Director of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, has a monthly column in the Oldie and writes regularly in the Times, the Telegraph, Country Life and the Daily Mail. Follow here on Twitter here