Notes From the Brisket Trail

Selling a book about food, as it turns out, can be much harder than writing it, which is a lesson this author learned over months spent traveling from New Haven to Naples and back.


First I cook the book: The Brisket Book: A Love Story With Recipes.

Then I sell the book.

Selling -- stunningly -- is harder than writing. Or cooking.

For the selling part, I get out of the same Pilates leggings and Gap t-shirt I have been wearing for the year and a half it takes me to research and write the book (not that I had time to actually ever go to Pilates), and hit the Brisket Trail. From Scarsdale, New York, to New Haven, Connecticut, to Naples, Florida, to brisket cyberspace. An event at the Brandeis Women's Club, a talk at Stone Barns, a brisket tasting at Whole Foods, a brisket dinner at Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art, three NPR shows -- one a fundraiser featuring the best book ever written as the incentive to join. Who needs that crummy umbrella or tote?

Suddenly, I am my own PR agent, publicist, promoter, marketer, networker. I am my own writer of press releases, blurbs, blog posts, tweets, speeches, sound bites, articles, Facebook pronouncements, event updates. I am a supplicant, sending off fawning requests for a review, a mention, an appearance, an event, a place on their store's cookbook shelf, a kind word of any kind. I make sure that I email previous good book review links to potential good book review bloggers. I am energetic, telegenic, wise, witty, and quotable on All Things Brisket, even at 5:30 a.m. (couldn't you start your show a little later, John Hockenberry?). I am the master of the personal thank you to anyone with any media presence anywhere who even whispers the word "brisket."

On this magical misery ... I mean, mystery tour, I am also the schlepper of homemade brisket (delivered still warm in its pristine Tupperware cocoon) for the host of any TV or radio show I might be on. "Amanda Hesser always brings tons of delicious food to her events,' advises one of my NPR radio hosts early on -- the day I show up in her studio with cold Blue Smoke barbecued brisket (no time to cook) and a wan corn muffin for one. "I'm not really hungry," says the producer of the show, who looks ravenous. "How long is my slot?" I ask the host over lunch. "Oh, it's up to my producer," she says. Uh oh.

Think Sisyphus. Only instead of a big rock, I am pushing a 1,400 pound grass-fed, corn-finished steer up a hill.

How's that steer doing? Pretty darn well and thank you for asking. My book comes out in early October, right around the time Jacques Pepin's new book Essential Pepin comes out. I get some great press immediately. My Google Alert lets me know that The Brisket Book is mentioned in the blog Living in the Kitchen With Puppies and it's online in Cowboys and Indians. Who needs Food52 or Food & Wine? I know the momentum is building when, just a week after pub date, my boyfriend looks at The Brisket Book page on Amazon and relays the good news: "Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought Very Hungry Caterpillar." I am pleased to see I have a much younger audience than I anticipated. Who knew that five-year-olds were dying to make an Aquavit Brisket with caraway and coriander seeds? Could it be that these discerning young readers are taking to heart the slogan of House Park Barb-B-Que in Austin: "Need no teef to eat my beef."

It's all going great until I take a look at what people are saying about Pepin's book: "A must-have for any cookbook fan." --USA Today. "Jacques Pépin has been a constant inspiration to me." --Alice Waters. "If there's a 'best of the best' in cookbooks, this is it." --Dan Barber. And they're turning Pepin's book into a multi-part PBS series. I get an amazing compliment, too. "You're the nicest cookbook author I've ever interviewed," says a food journalist in Idaho who tells me she has never eaten a brisket and thinks it is pork.

Pepin's book turns into a best-seller (as I write this, it's 148 on the Amazon hit parade), but I know that I am having experiences on the Brisket Trail that Chef Pepin will never have on La Rue de Onion Soup Lyonnaise. While he might appeal to your average Francophile cook, brisket (kindergartners aside) has a far more interesting and diverse fan base. The brisket lovers I meet and hear on my brisket journey range from the highly opinionated ("Oy, don't tell me you're thinking of adding Sauce Arturo?!") to the prideful ("How was the brisket?" I ask a friend who is cooking one of my recipes. "The Cook's Illustrated was pretty good," he says, adding: "I am not the biggest fan of paprika." Then this: "As you might expect, my recipe is better") to the cheerfully idiosyncratic ("We make our family brisket with meatballs on the top," shares a brisket maker at a woman's club luncheon, and I'm not the only one who thinks -- read: hopes -- I have misheard her) to the ones who blame me for red meat, bad supermarket experiences, and any brisket anywhere that hasn't turned out perfectly.

The following, from my friend, humorist and brisket maven, Marshall Efron, who posts on my Facebook Wall.

Marshall: Let me tell YOU about brisket: The Writers' Guild East served brisket at their party this year. It was glorious and fat. They should call it blissket. I couldn't get enough. I blame you for a heavenly experience and the concomitant angina.

Me: That's funny! So just send me your cardiologist bills....

Marshall: I'm trying to lift the pen. I can't get my fingers to work in an appropriate manner. I guess I'll just lie here and wait for the ambulance. Oh wait ... I don't have their phone number. Now I am in the pickle.

Spoiler alert: Marshall lives.

I discover that I have the only cookbook where people genuinely like the book (this is good) but will not cook any of the recipes (this is not good). "We're going over all the recipes," exclaim my friends Marsha and Joey. "We're crazy about the sound of the cranberry-glazed one. We can't decide between that and the sweet and sour recipe. Then there's the one with the rich and tangy barbecue sauce...." Two weeks later, on the eve of Hanukah, I ask them which one they are making. "Oh, the one we always make. The kids would be so disappointed if we changed it now." "I'm making the Joan Nathan brisket," says my friend, Raye. "Only I'm adding some mushrooms, celery, and potatoes. And I'm putting in chicken broth along with the wine."

On the Brisket Trail, brisket stays fascinating. I become boring. A friend asks if I'd like an iced tea or a Coke. "Oh," I say. "Coke." Then find myself saying, "Did you know that Coca-Cola was declared kosher in 1935? The Sweet & Sour brisket recipe in my book has Coca-Cola in it." It's kosher. The recipe, that is." I become indefatigable. I manage to get two copies of my book to the White House. One goes to Michelle Obama's press secretary, whose email I get from a journalist pal who gets it from Eddie Gehman Kohan, editor of I actually give -- in person - -a book to the First Lady (well, through one of her handlers) at a Democratic Women's Event I am invited to in New York. At a Meet & Greet after the luncheon, right after I hand off the book, I get about five seconds to tell Mrs. Obama that I have just given her the definitive brisket book as a gift and that I fervently hope that she and the president will enjoy more comfort food as they prepare themselves for the next election.

I become insane. "Listen," I say testily at the butcher shop to my boyfriend, "this brisket does not look like the shape of Pennsylvania -- it really looks like Tennessee. Can you Google a map so I can prove it to you?" I tailor brisket pitches for practically every TV show from Jon Stewart (I plan to tell him we need to put the "Brisket" in Hanukah and Christmas. To ask how his mother made brisket. Give him some recipes, give him some cooking hints. Tell him that the Obamas serve a brisket at their White House seders and now for Hanukah) to Martha Stewart (Martha and I cook a grass-fed brisket together. I let her shine. We talk about how people everywhere -- from Poland to prison to Bedford, New York -- share a love of what I sometimes call "the people's meat") to Stephen Colbert (We ponder the question: What makes brisket so democratic ... and yet so Republican? A cross-cultural wonder. We check ahead and see if Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, the Clintons, Ron Paul, Ru Paul have family brisket recipes. This being America, there's a Seitan brisket. Jews for Jesus brisket, Prozac Brisket. If this isn't the melting pot, what is?) to Rachael Ray (A multi-exclam cooking demo: This is every day food for all of us and it's delicious!!! And so easy to make!!! Can you believe that more people put Lipton Onion Soup into their briskets than real onions?!!!).

I follow my Facebook Brisket page; my Twitter account (@thebrisketbook), a blog. I track the hits on my video. I give out brisket postcards, brisket business cards, send people my brisket song. No other primal cut of meat -- as I remind brisket lovers -- has a song. Jacques Pepin has no song. Rump roast has no song. And my song (brisket is all about community) is a singalong.

Online, in book stores, at events, at signings, people tell me brisket stories, family brisket histories, their favorite brisket side dishes, not-very-funny brisket jokes. They tell me why no real Jew would make the brisket recipe in my book that uses canned cranberry sauce even though the recipe comes from Temple Emanu-El with a blessing from their rabbi. They tell me I shouldn't have put the seitan recipe first in the book. They tell me I have given too many sweet recipes when they want savory. And too many savory when everyone knows sweet is better. And just when I think I have had it with the Brisket Trail, I hear a brisket anecdote that makes me laugh and keep me going. True story:

Sherry, the friend of a friend, is in her building lobby in New York early one Sunday morning. "Who are all these people?" she asks Jose, the doorman, seeing a number of well-dressed couples and families going up in the elevator. "Oh, says Jose, "That young couple -- the Schwartz's -- in 7F are having a brisket."

The Joy of Cooking. The Oy of Brisket.

Image: bhathaway/Shutterstock.