Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Unsinkable Mollie Bryan and Her Cookbook

Today, I interview Mollie Cox Bryan, author of "Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley." Mollie talks about food writing, how she got into it and how this combo biography and cookbook happened.

Tell us about yourself.
I live in Waynesboro, Va., and am a stay-at-home mom who freelances, after being in the publishing field full time about 15 years in the Washington, D.C. area. I am originally from Western Pa.

Tell us about your book, "Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of > Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley."
It's a narrative cookbook that tells the story of Mrs. Rowe's life and restaurant in between recipes. Mrs. Rowe (Mildred) was raised on a struggling family farm in the Allegheny Highlands and became a wealthy, iconic, restaurant owner. The story of how that happens is a study into women's history, food history, restaurant history, and just a wonderful all-around story about the human spirit.

There's the old adage that every life has a story - but every life doesn't make a book. How did you happen upon this story and how did you know it was book-worthy?
After we moved from the DC area to the Shenandoah Valley, I began to hear stories about Mrs. Rowe. My husband works at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va. and Mrs. Rowe's son, Mike DiGrassie is on their Board of Directors. He often told my husband stories about his mother and Eric came home and told me. I really thought her personal story was remarkable and thought that someone needed to write it. So I approached Mike about writing a self-published biography of Mrs. Rowe. (The restaurant was going to publish it.) In the mean time, Mrs. Rowe passed away. I was quoted in local papers as her "biographer," and I began to hear from people all over the country-not just Virginia-about their memories of her, her food, and restaurant. So I knew then that I was on to a national story.

When you started, did you know you were going to incorporate the recipes from her restaurant into the book?
My original plan was to write the biography with one or two very special recipes at the end of each chapter. But I had no plan to write a cookbook.

Tell us about incorporating a biography into a cookbook. How did you weave the two together?
Believe it or not, I think two kind of unrelated experiences helped me cut apart the biography and morph it into a cookbook. First, I have a great deal of newsletter and magazine experience and those principles of telling the story through not just words, but also photos, captions, sidebars, and other art work really helped. Because this was a cookbook, I also had the extra element of telling the story through recipe head notes. So if there was a story in the narrative, for example, that I could pull out and place into a head note, that's what I did. I also have a hobby that helped. I am an avid scrapbooker and when my editor found that out, she said,"Let's think of this book visually like a scrapbook." As you can imagine, it was at first, hard to think of my 300-some page biography in terms of being a cookbook. It seemed overwhelming.

How did you find your agent/publisher?
My agent is Angela Miller, who I met at the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier. She was on a panel and I liked the fact that she used to be an editor and so (one would assume) knew language and had high esteem for writing. That is very important to me. I also really liked her very practical manner when she spoke about money. She looked at my proposal at the Greenbrier and made some suggestions. I rewrote and sent it to her and I think there were several more tweaks to the proposal. Then she sent it around as a biography and there were no takers, even though there were some very nice remarks. But, Ten Speed had this vision of it becoming a cookbook. And after working on this about two years at that point, when they asked, I said yes, sure I can do a cookbook.

You've specialized in food writing for a while, how did you develop this niche?
I went to the Greenbrier to see what it was all about. I found a group of very creative, supportive, smart writers who are really professional. So many opportunities are opening up for food writing and there are so many kinds of food writing-essays, articles, history, recipe writing-and then there the whole investigative and scientific food writing (Omnivore's Dilemma.). I was really just starting in freelancing, trying to find some lucrative, interesting markets, and there it was. The book has given me a great platform into more food writing articles. All that said, I like to be very careful in labeling myself-or anybody else for that matter;-). I also write a family life column for the Daily News Leader in Staunton, Va. and recently I've written profiles and garden articles for Virginia Living magazine. My favorite thing to write for magazines is the profile, and remember, it was Mrs. Rowe's life story that attracted me to her. I think why I like to write about food so much is that it proves such a wonderful frame or metaphor to tell stories about people.

You said you never imagined writing a cookbook, how does it differ from other types of food writing you do? Does it involve a lot of test tasting?
I think for some cookbook authors, yes, there is a lot of taste testing. For us (the restaurant and myself) we knew these recipes were used over and over again and would be fine, but the publisher insisted on professional testing, which is what we did. The tester made all the recipes and helped format the recipes. (There is a whole recipe style book, much like AP Style or Chicago, "Recipes into Type." Then, most cookbook publishers have their own house style, as well.) The magazines I've worked for-NPR's Kitchen Window, Grit, and Taste of the South, for example-do their own testing of your recipes.

How have you approached marketing your book?
I wrote a marketing plan and sent it to my publicist at Ten Speed. They designed the press materials and sent out galleys and books to reviewers. We worked together on book signings and other promotional events. I provided lists of local contacts and they made calls to set things up. I set up my own web site and blog. The other thing I've tried to do is publish articles about Mrs. Rowe, or her pie, or our relationship. And I have noted that when something gets published in a magazine that just mentions I am the author of this book, sales go up for a little while on Amazon. Also, the restaurant carries the book and has little blurbs about it on their placemats. The owner of the restaurant, Mike Di Grassie, showed up for some of the book signings, as well. We had one event where he and one of the chefs from the restaurant demonstrated how to cook certain items and I spoke about Mrs. Rowe and introduced them. That was a very successful event.

What's next for you? Where can people learn more about you and buy your book?
I am working on several projects right now. First, there will be another (smaller) Mrs. Rowe book-the working title is MRS. ROWE'S LITTLE BOOK OF SOUTHERN PIE. I've also been approached by another very old and fascinating Virginia establishment to write a narrative cookbook for them. I am considering that. In the mean time, I am working on a memoir, which will include the Western Pa. food I grew up eating. The working title is THE KITCHEN QUEEN OF FISH POT ROAD. And I am always working on articles or pitching articles to magazines. My website is molliecoxbryan.com and email address is molliebryan@comcast.net if anybody would like to reach me. You can get the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and you can order it directly from the publisher tenspeedpress.com.


Blogger Jeena said...

Hi kc

I have been following your food
blog for a while now as a silent
reader but have not commented
until now..all I can say is
"WOW your recipes look great",
and I want to cook them all :-)

I would like to get to know
you more, with your talent
for cooking then your going to
be a great friend to have.

Feel free to join our cooking
forum , you are very welcome
to join us.

Jeenas food recipe forum

You have such an amazing food
blog that I am sure our other
cooking members would love to know
more about it.

Thanks from
Jeena xx

5:17 AM CDT  

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