Writing a cook book: workshop with Nell Nelson

Nell Nelson on the cover of her book, Eat Well with Nell

Nell Nelson on the cover of her book, Eat Well with Nell

Edinburgh Book Festival will, of course, cover food. I attended a work shop on how to write a cook book with Nell Nelson, writer and nutritionist of a wonderfully engaging and cheerful disposition. You might have seen Nell in The Woman who ate Scotland where she travelled around the country sourcing and tasting many local ingredients and foods. This time, Nell took us on a tour of cook book writing, from idea to publication. She even had us practice by writing a recipe for humus she made right there (you’ll find my version below).

It was quite an intimate workshop, some 20 people huddled up in the Writer’s Retreat, the rain pattering the tent canvas as we learned. Yesterday (23 August) was the first day of the Festival since the schools went back and the Book Festival campus was full of youngsters having a jolly good time. But in the Writer’s Retreat the atmosphere was hushed, and to begin with, a little shy.

We were there to learn about how to write a cook book and all had our own ideas, something we thought was missing in the market, or something we just wanted to do for our own pleasure. Nell packed a lot into her 90 minutes and talked to us about:

  • Cook books in general – what do we want from them, why do we buy them?
  • Recipes – what to think about when writing them
  • Humus – a practical exercise and a mid-morning snack
  • Writing a proposal

The session was interactive which was both fun and useful. Group discussions about our favourite cook books showed that we use books for different things, usually inspiration or instruction. (I had an inkling of that from Danielle’s post on cookbooks a few months ago but it was interesting to get it confirmed from a larger group.)

The section I found particularly interesting was about writing a proposal and how the marketing part of the publishing process works. There’s little money in cook book writing (as in any other writing unless you’re one of the stars) but there is a lot of hard work. You come up with an idea, do the market research, write part of the book – testing and re-testing recipes, write your proposal, get an agent to place it for you, complete the book to deadline, get a brief flurry of marketing from the publisher and then spend a year or so doing what you can to buoy sales.  I think most of us at the work shop though that you “just” do the writing and then a fairy godmother agent/editor does all the hard work for you. That is not the case. There are 12,000 new cook books on the market every year: the publisher’s attention will, naturally, focus on the ones that pull in the money. Once you have published, it’s really up to you to drum up interest.

To show that I was interested, I went off to the shop after the workshop to buy Nell’s book and have a chat over the signing table. It wasn’t as busy as I think she would have liked but I hope more people came along after I left. Nell’s as engaging a writer a she is a workshop host and I hope she does really well when her latest book comes out in paper back later this year.

Nell’s Humus

This recipe omits an ingredient that you might expect: tahini. I was surprised to find that you don’t need it to make a lovely humus. I think I might even prefer this version  because it is a little brighter in flavour that the tahini version. You need a of lot lemon to counteract the earthy flavours of both tahini and chickpeas but not so much to put sparkle on chickpeas alone! A very useful lesson.

You need a hand blender or food processor for this recipe.

  • 1 tin chickpeas (drained)
  • The juice of one lemon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped.
  • 4 table spoons olive oil
  • A pinch of salt (optional)

Put all ingredients in a container suitable for your blending method. Blitz until you have the texture you prefer, coarse or smooth. (If the humus is a little too thick for your taste, blend in a couple of table spoons of water. That lightens the texture.)

Serve with  oatcakes.

Nell Nelson is a nutritionist, writer and television presenter. Her book “Eat Well with Nell” is out now in trade paperback  and will be released later this year in paperback.

Eat Well with Nell, 2009, Nell Nelson, Hachette Scotland, London. ISBN 978 0 7553 1855 1

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

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  1. Pingback: Soup for beginners – a bad idea, or a good one? « Edinburgh Foody

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