Cookbooks hold treasures beyond recipes

Putting together a cookbook involves carefully detailing ingredients, preparation methods, and cooking techniques. However, according to Susan Puckett, sharing the stories behind recipes is one of the keys to crafting a successful cookbook.

Puckett should know, she’s authored, co-authored or been an advisor for more than a dozen cookbooks.

“Recipes are windows into somebody’s life,” said Puckett. “It’s really the stories and memories behind it.”

A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Puckett attended University of Mississippi and attained a journalism degree.

“I got interested in the stories behind food and Southern food traditions,” said Puckett, who got her journalism start at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and became food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 19 years.

“I wrote most of my feature stories about dying traditions,” said the James Beard nominated journalist.

Realizing that writing about food was more than a casual interest, Puckett went back to school and took classes in nutrition at Iowa State University.

After leaving the AJC in 2008, Puckett returned to Mississippi and wrote Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South, which is described as “part travel guide, part cookbook, and part photo essay.”’ For the book, she traveled along Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway, gathering recipes and stories that capture the essence of the region.

In addition to writing several other cookbooks, she has also helped chefs, home cooks and others develop cookbooks of their own. Puckett provides coaching to some, others ask for help polishing their recipes and stories to accompany those recipes, she said. Sometimes what Puckett refers to as “heirloom” recipes may be scrawled on the back of an old check or scrap of paper and may be incomplete in ingredients or instructions.

“I help to fill in the details,” she said. “It can be very challenging.”

However, Puckett encourages anyone whose recipes are missing information to not be afraid to fill in the blanks through research and experimentation.

“It’s OK to try to do your best to come up with something close to it,” she said about filling in missing parts of recipes. “And you can write about that, your own experience trying to capture [the details].”

Eddie Hernandez, chef and co-owner of Taqueria del Sol, relied on Puckett to help turn his recipes and ideas into the cookbook Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen. She is also co-author of The Deep End of Flavor: Recipes and Stories From New Orleans’ Premier Seafood Chef.

“People want to write a cookbook for different reasons,” said Puckett. “I like being the observer, a fly on the wall and hearing people’s stories.

Susan Puckett, left, coached Suzy Karadsheh whose cookbook is on The New York Times bestseller list.

“My true love is helping other people tell their stories through food, whether it’s a chef or whether it’s someone else.”

On Sept. 21, Puckett, who resides in Decatur, joined one of her clients, food blogger Suzy Karadsheh, author of the recently published The Mediterranean Dish at Eagle Eye Bookstore in Decatur for a cooking demonstration and book signing. Puckett expressed pride that the book made The New York Times bestseller list.

“What I want to do is help people figure out what their goals are in writing a cookbook, whether it’s something for their family or do they have higher ambitions to get it published commercially,” she said.

Puckett isn’t keeping how to turn ideas for a cookbook into reality to herself. On Oct. 1, she led a workshop “How to Write an Amazing Cookbook” at Georgia Writer Museum in Eatonton.

“Figure out what’s the story they want to tell and why they want to tell it, why it’s important, who are they writing it for” are among what prospective cookbook authors must first explore, according to Puckett.

Sometimes the answers to those questions are incredibly personal.

She recalled a woman who created a cookbook as a favor for guests at her daughter’s wedding. The mother-of-the-bride included stories about life on the family farm and old photos.

Puckett has yet to pen her own family cookbook, but she has a wealth of source material—recipes handwritten in spiral notebooks in her “city grandmother’s” distinctive cursive penmanship as well as bulging folders of her mother’s recipe clippings.

“I just think recipes are so important,” said Puckett. “It’s a connection to who you are and who they are. It’s really a beautiful thing when you are able to share that so broadly.”

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