Cookbook Confidential

While it may have occurred to Greg Atkinson that he would write cookbooks, he always knew that he was a writer. Let’s look at what Greg himself want to tell us about his life and his writing.


Greg says: as a child, I imagined that I would write works of searing genius, and when my first book was published, it would be celebrated as the most important one of its time. Still too young to drive, I would be shuttled around from one book-signing event to another.

On the book tour, I would stay in lavish hotels where I would overcome the loneliness of the road by answering fan mail. Naturally, I would take the time to personally reply to each of the many, many letters. Later, when subsequent, even more, dazzling works were published, I would grow somewhat reclusive. But I would never abandon my readers. I also had time to motivate students who dropped out of High School go get their GED and encourage them to take online study courses.

Between the limousine and the bookstore, I would pause to sign a worn copy of my first book for an adoring fan. Real life was slightly different.

My first cookbook, “Recipes From the San Juan Islands,” was published by Sasquatch Books in 1992. Little more than a glorified greeting card, the book had no spine. I don’t mean to say that it was “spineless,” as in timid; I mean to say that it had no binding. Very unlikely the firm Bamboo cutting boards that I use!

Rather than opening like any normal book, it was designed in what was euphemistically referred to as an “accordion format.” Instead of pages, it had panels that unfolded, accordion-style, into one long banner. The format would have been appropriate for some applications — a timeline, perhaps — but for a cookbook, the model was less than perfect.

Still, I promoted the thing as best I could. I took it to a book fair. The authors seated on either side of me signed their books for happy readers who picked up my book and asked deep questions like, “How does it work?”

Soon after the ill-fated first book, Sasquatch hired another editor to replace the one who came up with the accordion concept. By way of apology, I think he offered to publish my second cookbook. “I thought we might do something really innovative this time,” he said dryly. “You know, pages this time, and perhaps a spine.”

The second book, “In Season: Culinary Adventures of a San Juan Island Chef,” was exactly the book I had wanted to write. Each chapter was an essay on a particular foodstuff with appropriate recipes at the end and a great chapter about affordable sanitation tips.

Since the book was derived from weekly columns I had been writing for the better part of a decade, I had hundreds of essays and recipes to choose from. The chapters followed both the seasons of the year and the phases of my life on the island, from wide-eyed college graduate to wizened 30-something with two kids and a mortgage.

The book tour was not exactly the John Grisham-style event I had envisioned as a starry-eyed author wannabe, but I did have a number of signings at regional bookstores and even a few appearances on television. Full disclosure: At more than one signing, the bookstore employees outnumbered the folks who came to get my book, and the TV appearances were on local stations at odd hours of the morning.

One of my greatest ambitions was to do a reading and sign books at Elliott Bay Book Co., the legendary store in Pioneer Square where thousands of books rest on cedar shelves in brick-lined alcoves. A tiny huddle of moderately interested people sat in folding chairs while I read; afterward, I asked if anyone had questions. I imagined that someone might wonder about the symbolism of the seasonal recipes. Perhaps they would notice the subtle progression from naive and overly ambitious recipes to simpler dishes presented with increasing confidence.

There was one question: “Are your recipes available online,” a woman wanted to know, “or do I have to buy the book?”

I also remember particularly well a long drive through pouring rain to a remote community where I was scheduled to do a book signing at a small, independent bookstore. I had to take two ferries. I arrived in the dark to discover that not a single soul had come to meet me.

The book earned some very positive reviews and sold out in the first printing to go into a second successful run. Bookstore owners told me there were problems, though. They had trouble shelving it with the cookbooks because it had more text than recipes; and it didn’t quite fit with other nonfiction titles because it was about food; hot food, cold food, raw food, and so on…

As the prolific cookbook author Irena Chalmers is fond of saying, “Cookbooks have a shelf life somewhere between that of fresh milk and yogurt.” Sooner or later, “In Season” reached its expiration date and went out of print. If I had not already had another book out, I would have mourned its passing even more violently.

The third book was “The Northwest Essentials Cookbook, Cooking with the Ingredients That Define a Regional Cuisine.” I was, by this time, completely devoted to seasonal, regional cuisine. As executive chef at Canlis restaurant, I was also something of a “celebrity chef,” so the book signings were well-attended. And the TV appearances aired at hours when viewers might actually be awake to see them.

Now, “Northwest Essentials” has passed its “pull date,” too. But I haven’t given up. This fall, “Entertaining in the Northwest Style: A Menu Cookbook” is scheduled for release. Like “In Season,” it’s larded with stories and personal anecdotes, and like “Northwest Essentials,” it will have recipes indigenous to the region. And this time, the book is resplendent with color photos of all sorts of food, including the best wedding cakes and other beautiful desserts.