Joan Nathan: The 17th Try Paid Off

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

To be a successful cookbook author, says Joan Nathan, you need to persevere. She should know. Her first cookbook came out in 1975, but only after it was rejected by 16 publishers. She was living in Jerusalem at the time, and she and a friend wanted to write about the food of the city's diverse ethnic groups.

By the time the 17th publisher agreed to publish "The Flavor of Jerusalem," says Nathan, "we had almost written the entire book just for the proposal." The two women received "a tiny advance," and the book went on to sell 25,000 copies -- not a huge amount, but decent for a first try.

That book was just the beginning of Nathan's 30-year career as the author of nine cookbooks. It wasn't exactly an overnight success, but it has paid off. Royalties from her top-selling "Jewish Cooking in America" in 1994 (plus an expanded edition in 1998) helped pay for land in Martha's Vineyard where Nathan, 62, who lives in Washington, has since built a vacation home. "We call it the house my books built," she says.

Outgoing, personable and relentless when she's in pursuit of a recipe, Nathan skillfully weaves carefully researched stories about people and their culture in nearly every cookbook she's written. Most of her books have focused on Jewish cooking, but her newest, "The New American Cooking," takes a broader view. With recipes that range from Indian palek paneer to Thai Lemon Grass Chicken, the book shows how immigrants in the last 40 years have transformed how Americans cook.

For Nathan, getting her first cookbook published 30 years ago was hard. For budding authors today, she adds, "it's even harder."

"The first thing I tell people is to look at other cookbooks. Make sure there's nothing like what you're doing out there." Her second piece of advice: "Get a good agent [and] get on television."

Nathan suggests getting media training to help with television appearances. "People will want to see videos of you. I never got [media training], but it's a whole different ballgame today."

--Candy Sagon


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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