Cookbook Trouble : Righting Recipes
At first Rick Rodgers thought it was a joke. How could anyone possibly test 200 recipes in two weeks? But the editor was desperate. A cookbook was ready to go to press and some of the recipes didn’t look right to her.
So Rodgers put his life on hold and agreed to take on the task of testing every last one of them.
“We worked in shifts,” he says. “I had a full-time dishwasher, a full-time grocery shopper and two full-time typists.” As it turns out, the savvy editor had good reason to panic; there were real problems with the recipes.
Rodgers, who has written six of his own cookbooks and has another two due out this fall, anonymously tests, retests and often writes recipes for much better-known cooks.
“I can work more by being anonymous instead of bragging who my clients have been,” says Rodgers. “It’s like being a celebrity hairdresser. You just don’t talk about whose roots you’ve retouched.”
Although he won’t name names, you get an idea who some of them are by glancing at the acknowledgments page of recent cookbooks.
“A big thank you and sigh of relief to Rick Rodgers, who took the final recipes and whipped them into perfect shape,” writes Daniel Leader in “Bread Alone.”
“Three cheers for Rick Rodgers, cook and food tester extraordinaire. . . . I’ll never be able to thank him enough,” Eric V. Copage notes in his book “Kwanzaa.”
Rodgers is also profusely thanked in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “Christmas Cookies” and “Melting Pot” books, and in both of the Mr. Bread Man books.
But not everyone is as generous with their praise. Some cooking stars prefer to ignore the fact that Rodgers has had a hand in their books. “Books I’ve totally rewritten have won awards,” he says, “but my name wasn’t even mentioned during the ‘I want to thank the little people’ speech.”
Still, he’s happy for the chance to work with some of the best cooks in the business.
Seven years ago, however, when the former “Silver Palate” cookbook team Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso asked Rodgers to help write the recipes for their “The New Basics” cookbook, Rodgers turned them down. They were only paying about $50 per recipe, including ingredients.
“Bupkis,” he says. “I mean I wanted to get into the food business, but I didn’t want to get in on my hands and knees.”
About a year later, Rose Levy Beranbaum had a close deadline to meet for her “Christmas Cookies” book and asked Rodgers, a former caterer, to help her test the recipes and make the methods more concise. The two had worked together at Chocolatier Magazine. Maria Guarnaschelli, Beranbaum’s editor at the time, was happy to find someone who would take the back seat and began asking Rodgers to help some of her other authors. Suddenly, Rodgers had a new career.
A good cook is not always a good recipe writer and often needs help making his or her thoughts clear. “I’m a cookbook doctor,” says Rodgers. “I’m just another step in the editing process. Unfortunately, due to the financial constrictions on most cookbooks, it’s a step that many editors choose to skip.”
Precise instructions, Rodgers says, mean the differences between success and failure in a recipe. “I still get books from experienced cookbook writers that say ‘cook until done’ or ‘bake for 30 minutes.’ Yeah, what? Bake for 30 minutes until the top is golden brown? Or bake until the edges are brown?”
Rodgers also makes the assumption that many cookbook readers are not experienced cooks. Instead of “saute,” he writes “cook over high heat” or “fry.” He never uses “puree,” “julienne” or “deglaze,” either.
"(A lot of) Americans don’t know what these words mean,” he says. “But if I say ‘pour liquid into the pan and scrape up the drippings with a spoon,’ they know what that means.”
Rodgers uses the same sort of equipment as most home cooks--he cooks on a Magic Chef stove and uses Revere Ware. “A lot of professional cooks have these big expensive stoves and use their $500 pot,” he says. “Three minutes over high heat on my Magic Chef is a lot different than three minutes on a professional range with professional-gauge equipment.”
Authors also often call for ingredients that are almost impossible to find, Rodgers complains. Certain types of wild game or mushrooms or exotic fruit are not necessarily available in Lawndale, much less Louisville.
“I often joke that I’m Mr. Smith and I live in the middle of Iowa, and that’s who I cook for,” says Rodgers. “So if Mr. Smith wants to make wild boar poivre , I’ll provide him with addresses to order green peppercorns and the wild boar, and I’ll also tell him it will be just as good with pork. That way he won’t feel left out.”
Even with the care he takes, Rodgers knows very few cookbooks are mistake-free, including his own “The Turkey Cookbook.” He left the turkey out of his recipe for turkey lasagna.
But, Rodgers says, “There are cookbooks where recipe after recipe after recipe doesn’t work-- those are the big boo-boos that I’m trying to avoid.”