You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. (Surprise!) Here, we'll talk them.
Today: When we look at a cookbook, it's already a fully formed, cohesive object. But what was the author inspired by and thinking about while creating the book? Here, Tara O'Brady—the author and photographer behind Seven Spoons, the blog and now the book—lets us in on her creative process.
Writing my cookbook, Seven Spoons, was the largest project I’ve ever undertaken. From developing the recipes to preparing, styling, and shooting the photos in my home, it is hard to pin down all the points of inspiration when considering so many moving parts. There were some major forces at work, though, and I’m happy to share those today with you here.
1. Road trips and picnics
While I dread clothes packing for trips, I love organizing boxed lunches and picnics. I don’t know why, but I find deciding what to eat far easier than deciding what to wear. As a child, my family and I often travelled to India from Canada, and then a lot within India itself. I have vivid memories of banana-leaf-wrapped bundles of masala dosas bought from street vendors en route to somewhere, and the pâté sandwiches my mum would make for train rides. Tea was a must, either frothed “pulled” sweet tea—tea poured from one vessel to another, quickly and from a height—or homemade, out of the brown thermos my parents brought on long car rides. With such an affection for road food, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the foods in my book are perfectly portable.
2. New York City
I feel it is impossible be in New York City and not have one of those iconic, movie-style “New York moments.” Whether it is the first time you take in the ceiling at Grand Central, or the tenth time you walk the High Line, there are instances when the romance of the place hits you full force. I can remember my first hot dog I ever had in the city, bought for me by my great uncle on a street corner in Manhattan. That was the day I fell in love with mustard. A few years ago, I was in a restaurant on the edge of Central Park with a friend. It was the last night of our trip, and we were feeling fancy. We ate a plate of pickled strawberries on fresh mozzarella. The combination was shockingly good, and that was the night I fell in love with soured strawberries. In my book I have a jammier version, halfway between a pickle and a preserve, and come springtime, I make them by the jarful and think fondly of NYC.
Esquites and Yellow Tomato Gazpacho
3. Farm stands
It is hardly innovative to say that my cooking is rooted in the seasons; that said, I think it is the way a lot of people cook today, or want to cook today. Where I live, the winters are pretty cold, but our particular climate makes the area ideal for farms and orchards come spring. It’s the type of place where we have a strawberry festival, a cherry festival, a garlic festival, one for grapes, and another for peaches. I know I’m fortunate to have the access to farm stands and the like, and so try to pay respect to the farmers’ work by not fussing too much with their produce. A lot of the book is about showcasing those ingredients the best I can. Which leads us to...
4. Nature and natural elements
When it comes to food styling and photography, my personal approach is to do as little as possible. I work quickly and pretty much style by not styling at all. I focus on the natural beauty of the way a leaf curls, or try to highlight the texture of a cake as it is. There’s a spontaneity to the approach, which I hope makes the viewer feel as though they are sitting at my table. For backgrounds, I used surfaces in my home, so you’ll see counters and cutting boards, tables and the back deck. I like how plates look on the dull, worn surfaces and the patina that develops on cookware that’s been well-used.
I get ridiculously excited by the science of cooking. It is truly gratifying to me to understand the hows and whys of a recipe, from how to curb the browning of fried chicken to the fundamental differences between biscuits that fluff versus those that flake, or what a 10-degree temperature change will do to a cookie, or how to use steam to keep a chicken moist (but retain a crisped skin). I geeked out on thermometers (oven, candy, instant) and compared different baking sheets. Working on a project like the book gave me the time to really get stuck in those intricacies. Those details were not only fascinating, but sometimes make all the difference, taking a recipe from good to great.
6. My family, sons, and heritage
My family comes from the North and South of India and I’m first-generation; my husband’s family is from Ireland and England, but both sides have a long history in Canada. I have two sons to cook for, and I find I often use food as a way to teach them about the different cultures in our home, and to instill in them a sense of pride and ownership of those traditions. While my book isn’t traditional in any one sense, that history and practice is behind many of the dishes and gave me the opportunity to finally write down so many of the recipes and techniques my family has passed down and perfected through the years.
7. Food writers
My mother always kept cookbooks in a hutch in the corner of the kitchen; she had a habit of reading at the table. Even before I knew how to cook, I was reading cookbooks with her. Or at least looking at pictures. That love of food writing has stayed with me. When I read Francis Lam, Nigel Slater, Molly Wizenberg, Nigella Lawson, MFK Fisher, Elissa Altman, Anthony Bourdain, or Elizabeth David, I find both reassurance and inspiration in how their tone and style is immediately recognizable. I get a sense of the personality behind the food, and the association makes the reading that much more rich. I hope that my book conveys my perspective as clearly.
Most of Seven Spoons was photographed in and around my house, save for a trip to a family cottage in Muskoka, Canada. I shoot with natural light alone, and to be honest my house wasn’t chosen for the quality of its light. (We live on a shaded lot, with the biggest windows facing east and west. The interior goes between dim to full-on sunny to truly dark, multiple times a day.) That said, this sometimes diffused, often grey-green light now looks like my home to me—our family photos have a similar cast—so I decided to work with that trait rather than against it. Photographers like Jonathan Lovekin, Ditte Isager, and the team of Nikole Herriott and Michael Graydon are favorites of mine specifically for their mastery of light and shadow. Their shots always have this quietness to them, a depth even when bright, and often a gray undertone that keeps things handsome.
I remember when you couldn’t buy cilantro in the local chain grocery store. We either grew our own or bought it from an Indian specialty shop. But more people are cooking from books with diverse influences, and that demand is bringing a greater accessibility to a broader range of foods. One of my favorite things to do when visiting a place is to check out a local market or spice shop and fill my cart with things I’ve never tried before. That sort of culinary tourism broadens my perspective and fuels my curiosity. Plus, it’s fun.
10. My readers
Over the ten years I’ve been blogging, I married my boyfriend, left my job, became a mother twice over, moved cities, bought homes, and started a new career. Seven Spoons, the site, was the constant. As my cooking evolved and as the subjects of my writing changed, readers of the site gave me invaluable feedback, sharing their own experiences or interests, or things they’d picked up about cooking. That back-and-forth served as a sounding board as I worked out my own ideas, and in many ways shaped the way I now approach writing recipes. I wrote Seven Spoons as my half of that continued conversation.
Photos by Tara O'Brady