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Reading Food : Life on the Road: A Cookbook Writer Pays Her Dues on a 10-Day Odyssey

November 08, 1990|ROSE DOSTI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"What have you got in this thing, lady?" asked a porter. He was lugging my ice chest toward the ticket counter as if he were pulling an Egyptian pyramid.

Who could blame him? A cookbook author on a 10-day, 10-city tour has to take along just about everything!

What I had in that thing was this: Pots. Pans. Bowls. Pastry board. Paper towels. Oil (to spruce up food that has dried out under hot television lights). Ice packs (to keep foods from developing ptomaine). Detergent and sponges (to wash dishes in ladies' rooms just in case the television studio "kitchen sink" is a fake--which it usually is). And, of course, food.

"Break a leg," my publisher said, sending me off with a smile. I smiled back. I had no idea what was in store.

"Arrive 8 p.m. Monday," said my itinerary. "XYZ TV station demonstration 7 a.m. Tuesday." My plane, in fact (delayed due to weather), arrived at 1 a.m. At 6 a.m. I was in the bowels of the hotel whipping up a quick bastilla . At 7 a.m. I arrived at the television studio, food chest in tow.

"You must be the food act," said a grip as I lugged my one-ton ice chest across the studio floor. No one lifted a finger to help. "Union rules, you know," said the grip, leading me to a fake--and filthy--"kitchen counter" set against a fake Chicago skyline that doubled as a news team's desk.

Then I had two minutes before it was time to be gorgeous and witty and put out a 10-course meal.

It might have been easier had I not chosen a dish using filo . Most of the dough I had brought with me dried out after a few days on the road, and I ended up doing the entire demonstration substituting sheets of legal-size typewriter paper for the dough. "Neat trick," said the television host.

At least it kept the camera crew from devouring the props before show time. On another occasion, an entire meal for a morning show disappeared when my back was turned. We had to resort to close-up photographs from the book.

But who's complaining? Every author has his road stories. The late Dione Lucas, a French chef and one of the first women to go on the road with a cookbook, told of carrying a fresh pig's head that was leaking droplets of blood as she stepped off the New Haven Railroad. She was stopped by the police and her bag was confiscated. The policeman fainted when he opened the bag. She never did get her pig back.

Missing ingredients have actually been known to kill books. One author promoting a book on a Los Angeles television show ran out of eggnog. She substituted colored water thickened with egg white. The host tasted it--and spit it out--before millions of viewers. That ended the interview--and the book.

To avoid these little problems, many publishers provide an assistant to do the shopping, cooking and chauffeuring for the visiting author. "It's important to have the day run smoothly," says Lisa Ekus, president of Lisa Ekus Public Relations, which specializes in food books. After all, sending an author on a tour is not cheap. A single day on the road can cost a publisher $1,000 for a novelist and about $1,500 for a cookbook author (because of higher out-of-pocket expenses for food and materials). Nevertheless, Ekus estimates that touring by cookbook authors has quadrupled in the last five years.

After all, sending an author on a tour is not cheap. A single day on the road can cost a publisher $1,000 for a novelist and about $1,500 for a cookbook author (becuase of higher out-of-pocket expenses for food and materials). Nevertheless, Ekus estimates that touring by cookbook authors has quadrupled in the last five years.

Not every author gets to tour: Publishers look for "mediagenic" personalities. "An author has to be effervescent and an intelligent spokesperson who can answer interviewer's questions articulately," says Stuart Applebaum, senior vice president of publicity and public relations for Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. Adds Ekus: "Some authors may be wonderful writers or cooks, but they are duds on the screen."

But help is available--even for duds, at a price: Ekus offers two-on-one media-training sessions to prepare food writers for television appearances at $2,000 a session.

"Most television studios want to see what they're getting before they commit to having them on the show," says Ekus, who has trained Jasper White, author of "Jasper White's Cooking From New England" (Harper & Row); Nicole Routhier, who authored "Foods From Vietnam" (Stuart, Tabori & Chang), and Sally Schneider, author of "Art of Low Calorie Cooking" (Stuart, Tabori & Chang).

But some old pros don't need Ekus' help. Consider veteran Maida Heatter, author of several cookbooks. "I don't carry anything anymore," she says. While promoting "Maida Heatter's Book of Great American Desserts" (Alfred A. Knopf: $25), Heatter carried only a single jar of chocolate sauce. "All I need to do is heat it up and reuse it for the next interview."

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