There are a lot of factors that go into the process of writing, testing, re-testing, editing, photographing, re-editing, styling, re-re-editing, publishing, marketing, and distributing a cookbook. It’s a process I’ve become quite familiar with over the past two decades. Though the word “factors” is slightly misleading. The correct terminology should be “people.”
My latest cookbook, “Mississippi Mornings” was released yesterday. It is my 13th book in the last 21 years. And whereas it has my name on the cover, it— like every book I’ve written before it— was a team effort. The true story of every cookbook, not just mine but anyone’s, is not on the cover, but on the acknowledgements page. It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Maybe so, but it definitely takes a great team to publish a cookbook.
From day one my business philosophy has been— take great care of the people who take care of you, and I have always believed in giving credit where credit is due. With Mississippi Mornings there’s a lot of credit to give.
My team is one that, at least when it comes to the culinary lineup, has been together since that first book 21 years ago. Chef Linda Roderick leads our recipe-testing team. The two of us have worked together—on and off—for more than 23 years. We’ve worked together for so long, and on so many projects, that we practice our own version of verbal kitchen shorthand and can communicate efficiently in partial sentences. She has an excellent palate, tons of wisdom, and loads of experience. Together we have more than three-quarters of a century in this business. Hers has been one of my favorite professional relationships, ever, and we are currently in the process of developing and testing the recipes for next year’s cookbook.
Chef Scott Strickland (we call him Scotty), served as Linda’s sous chef for recipe testing and photo shoots. He and I have also worked together for more than twenty years. He manned the stoves at the Purple Parrot for almost two decades and is now working his magic in the kitchen at The Midtowner. He, along with Linda, did the heavy lifting on the recipe testing. He has always been by my side, whether it’s for a new feature in the restaurant or an out-of-town cooking demonstration. His talents are numerous.
Kate Dearman shot all the photographs in the book and might be one of the hardest working women in the photography business. I have known her mother— my first-ever date to a concert when we were both six— all my life. Kate grew up in Hattiesburg and now works out of Nashville. She is a consummate professional and got some great food shots for the book. She also had the unenviable task of trying to secure a usable photograph of the author, which probably turned out to be a tougher task than making a plain bowl of grits look appealing.
Martha Foose was still living between the Mississippi Delta and— what she quickly labeled the “Pine Belta” in— Hattiesburg when we shot the book. She is also a cookbook veteran and served as the primary food stylist for the photo shoot. In the middle of the photo shoot, I asked her to write the foreword. She nailed both assignments and kept everyone in stitches the entire time.
Anthony Thaxton is possibly the most talented person I know. He is a man of many gifts who wears many hats. In addition to being my co-producer on numerous television shows and a couple of documentary projects, his is also my fellow co-founder— and the driving force— at our newly founded Institute of Southern Storytelling at Mississippi College. He handled the design and artistic direction for this project and did it well. This may be my best-looking book, ever.
Simeon Williford is my assistant and keeper. She handles the publishing business and the travel business in addition to my schedule and most of the random things that pop up over the course of my days. She keeps me between the bumpers and in the bonus.
To round out the team Laurel Rowell handles marketing, Maria Keyes covers accounting (and farm-fresh eggs), Chief Operating Officer, Jarred Patterson, holds down the forts. And while we’re speaking of the forts, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 450 team members who are down in the daily trenches at New South Restaurant Group restaurants every day.
Jill St. John and Justin Jordan should receive special thanks for floral design, staging, and handling the props department. I never knew that turning our dining room into what looked like a temporary flea market could be so effective.
Four of the 13 books I have written were done so under national publishing contracts. One was a three-book deal with the national publisher 15 years ago. There were two books I wanted to do with that publisher when I signed the deal. One was a Christmas cookbook the other was a breakfast cookbook. They weren’t interested in doing a Christmas cookbook but said they could do a holiday cookbook. I passed and made a mental note to publish a Christmas book under my own imprint in the future. I ended up doing a grilling book instead of the breakfast book and was very proud of it. It was one of my better efforts. But the breakfast book has always been on the to-do list. That day has come.
Having worked in the self-publishing world for most of my books I’ve learned a lot. For a long time, I thought a book project wasn’t legit unless it came from a national publisher. And then I worked with two different national publishers and was surprised to learn that— at least when it comes to my work and my specific audience— I am more in touch with my base than the professionals on the Upper West Side. It’s around that time that I decided to use my own imprint for all future works.
I no longer have the desire to have my books in stores from coast to coast. Been there, done that. These days my interest is in those who follow my work in the Southeastern United States. I also only work with local independent bookstores and gift shops. That’s one change I made a couple of books ago. My books were being sold in all the big box retailers, but the backbone of my support was in independent bookstores and gift shops. I am a huge proponent of people eating in local restaurants and not dining in national chains and it struck me one day why would I work against independent booksellers and small gift shops who are on the front lines of the book business. I need to practice what I preach and support those who have supported me and my work.
As I head out on a brief book-signing tour throughout Mississippi, I’ll be fueled by an overwhelming sense of gratitude and indebtedness for those independent retailers who sell my books, to those who take time out of their day to come to a book signing to purchase one of my books, the robertstjohn.com online followers who live out of state and order books, and especially those who have helped me produce these books for the past two decades.
As always, it’s the people. Thank you from the deepest recesses of my overworked heart.
Sweet Potato Pancakes
I ate my first sweet potato pancake during my only visit to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. My family, along with another couple and their young children rented a cabin in the mountains during spring break. I woke every morning and headed into town for breakfast. I would imagine Gatlinburg has more pancake houses per capita than any place on the planet. My problem is that I never found a good-tasting pancake until I happened across sweet potato pancakes at one of the pancake houses.
We serve a version of this recipe at The Midtowner. The Cinnamon Cream Syrup is a must.
Yield: 10-14 pancakes
Preheat oven to 200 degrees for holding pancakes
1 2/3 cups All Purpose Flour
1 TBSP Baking Powder
½ tsp Baking Soda
½ tsp Kosher Salt
½ tsp Nutmeg
1 ½ tsp Cinnamon
1 ½ cups Cooked and mashed sweet potato (approximately two medium sweet potatoes)
3 Large Eggs
¼ cup Sour Cream
1 ½ cups Milk
¼ cup Maple Syrup
¼ cup Unsalted Butter, melted
1 TBSP Pure Vanilla Extract
Melted butter or non-stick spray for cooking
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon in a medium sized bowl. In a separate mixing bowl whisk together the sweet potato puree eggs, sour cream, milk, maple syrup, melted butter and vanilla extract. Whisk the sweet potato mixture into the flour mixture, do not overmix. A few lumps is fine.
Allow batter to sit 10-15 minutes before cooking pancakes.
To cook the pancakes, heat a non-stick griddle to 325-350 degrees (models vary, so test your griddle with a small bit of batter to assure you have the heat adjusted correctly). Brush griddle with melted butter or spray with non-stick spray. Form pancakes by using a one-third cup measuring cup. Cook until surface of pancakes has some bubbles and a few have burst, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip pancakes and cook for an additional two minutes. If holding pancakes in oven before serving, place them on a wire rack in preheated oven.
Serve with Cinnamon Cream Syrup
Cinnamon Cream Syrup
This pairs perfectly with Sweet Potato Pancakes. It may be better than the pancakes themselves (and they’re great). But try this recipe on regular pancakes, waffles, and French toast.
Yield: approximately 2 cups
1-14 ounce can Sweetened Condensed Milk
¼ cup + 2 TBSP Maple Syrup
1 ½ tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
Set up a small sauce pot to act as a double boiler. Combine all ingredients in a small stainless-steel bowl and place over double boiler on medium-high heat. Cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and serve.
The cooled syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for one week.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)