Philip’s first cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook sold twenty thousand copies and was not reprinted after the third printing sold out. The tome has since become a hot commodity and used copies are hard to find.
And now, ten years after Tantamount Press published Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook, Philip is a few months away from publishing his second cookbook with Tantamount, the promotional budget the same as for the first cookbook: nothing.
On a sunny Friday morning in May at Ziggurat Farm on the outskirts of the northern California coastal town of Mercy, Philip, fifty-eight, having just ferried Arturo, nine, Henri, eight, and Vivienne, seven, to Mercy Montessori, is gathering his wits and gazing around his glorious new kitchen when his editor at Tantamount calls.
“Hey Philip,” says Tiffany, who is twenty-seven and sounds fourteen to Philip. “Yucky news. Sales is not happy with your title and subtitle. Me, personally, I like Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, and Ziggy actually really likes it, and the cover drawing your friend did of the dogs drinking wine is so cute. But Sales says the whole package is a retro yawner and they want something punchier, sexier, and they need it yesterday? Tomorrow morning at the latest? If not, they might delay publication for like six months? Possibly a year? Can you get me something sexier and punchier by tomorrow morning? Ooh I have to take this call. Talk soon.”
Before leaving for the vegetable garden to share this weighty news with his wife Lisa and comrades Andrea and Marcel who are hard at work planting out seedlings from the greenhouse, Philip calls Sandra Messer, the chef and owner of the legendary restaurant Le Scélérat in Berkeley where Philip was a waiter for ten years before moving with Lisa and Marcel and Andrea to Mercy. Sandra, who was entirely responsible for Tantamount publishing Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm, wrote the praise-filled Introduction and has now written a rave blurb for the new cookbook.
“Titles are a bitch,” says Sandra, who is from Chicago and in her seventies. “Everybody calls your first one Delicious Ambitious, why not call this one Delicious Ambitious Two, with the Two spelled T-O-O? And use Ziggurat Farm in the sub?”
Philip thanks Sandra for her suggestion and is about to call Tiffany back when he thinks I hate Delicious Ambitious Too, and goes out to join his wife and friends in the garden.
Taking a break from sowing chard seeds, Philip watches Marcel, who is a few years younger than Philip and very French, digging well-aged chicken manure into a nearby bed soon to be filled with broccoli seedlings.
“These are the same geniuses who wouldn’t reprint your first book?” says Marcel, resting for a moment. “After you sold twenty thousand copies with no promotion?”
“Same geniuses,” says Philip, who hopes the new book succeeds well enough so he and Marcel don’t have to go back to being waiters any time soon. “But geniuses or no, if they aren’t enthusiastic about the package, as they call it, they may only do one small printing, which defeats the purpose of making the book in the first place.”
“Why would they publish a book if they’re just going to kill it before it can develop a following?” asks Marcel, frowning and shaking his head. “Makes no sense.”
“I don’t know,” says Philip, resuming his seeding of the bed. “I’m not a publisher.”
“Sexier and punchier?” says Andrea on her way to the upper beds of the terraced garden with a flat of seedlings. “How about Fucking Food? That’s punchier and sexier.”
“Much,” says Philip, who knows Sales delaying publication is often prelude to a publisher dropping a book and demanding the return of the author’s advance.
“I’m kidding,” says Andrea, aching in sympathy with Philip.
“I know you are,” says Philip, smiling at her, “but I’m afraid they would prefer Fucking Food to Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm.”
“If this year’s wine is as good as last year’s,” says Marcel, speaking of the wine they make on the farm, “and we have another good year with the garden, we can publish your book ourselves.”
“Two very big ifs,” says Andrea, who is boss of the garden and keeps the books and knows better than anyone how precarious the farm’s finances.
Over lunch at the picnic table near the farmhouse, Lisa says, “Why not ask Nathan? He’s such a wonderful poet.”
“They don’t want poetry,” says Philip, despondently. “They want punchier and sexier.”
“You don’t need them,” says Andrea, who has enormous faith in Philip. “Marcel is right. We can publish your book ourselves and sell it at farmers markets and in local bookstores and online. If they won’t use your title, tell them to go to hell.”
“Are you serious?” asks Philip, who has never imagined self-publishing his cookbook. “I’d have to return the advance. Ten thousand dollars. We can’t really spare that, can we?”
“It’s fine,” says Andrea, on the verge of tears. “We don’t need them.”
“You and Andrea worked on those recipes for seven years,” says Lisa, nodding in agreement with Andrea. “It’s a magnificent book. You can’t allow them to debase your creation.”
“I’ll talk to Nathan,” says Philip, buoyed by their support. “On my way home with the kids.”
Nathan Grayson, a poet of some renown in his youth, is eighty-two and has a blog on which he posts his poems and stories when he has new ones to share. He has no idea how many people read his blog. Seven? Three hundred? He doesn’t care. The act of sharing is what he loves.
Philip and Nathan sit at a small table on the south-facing deck of Nathan’s little house on the edge of Mercy drinking nettle tea. Henri and Arturo are in the kitchen helping Celia, Nathan’s wife, prepare avocado and cheese quesadillas for their after-school snacks, and Vivienne is in the garden with the resident mongrel puppies Chico and Gypsy, picking flowers for a table bouquet.
“Way back when,” says Nathan, loving the sight of Vivienne with the pups, “I knew a poet named Larry Henderson who was hot stuff for a couple years and then vanished as most poets do. His poems were stacks of very short same-sounding sentences. ‘The man went to the store. The man bought some bread. The man went home. The man made a sandwich. The man watched television.’ Listening to him was torture. He spoke in a monotone tenor with a long pause after each sentence. Every time I heard him read I wanted to strangle him. But he sold lots of books because his covers were photographs of near-naked women with half-open mouths apparently wanting sex, with titles like Her Outrageous Orgasm and His Mighty Erection.” Nathan laughs. “People snapped them up, for gag gifts maybe. And that’s all I know about sexier and punchier.”
“I can’t think of anything but the title I have,” says Philip, watching Vivienne confer with the pups about which flowers to pick. “Good Eats From Ziggurat Farm: more recipes for the somewhat ambitious cook, which is a reference to my first cookbook.”
“To be honest, Philip,” says Nathan, clearing his throat, “for my taste that’s not a very good title or subtitle. Not because they aren’t true, but because they came from your intellect and not from the divine source.”
“What do you mean?” asks Philip, taken aback Nathan doesn’t like the title.
“I mean there are two kinds of creating, whether it’s writing or composing music or painting or creating a recipe or anything.” Nathan waits a moment for Philip to consider what those two kinds of creating might be. “One kind is the intellectual organizing of things we already know. That’s 99.9 percent of what gets published and performed and presented to the world, and that’s why everything the mainstream gives us is stuff we’ve seen thousands of times before.”
“The intellectual organizing of things we already know,” says Philip, nodding in understanding of Nathan’s idea.
“The other kind of creating,” says Nathan, gesturing to the sky, “is unconscious spontaneous outpouring that comes from nobody-knows-where. And that, as we used to say in the Sixties, is the boss stuff.”
“I’m reaching for the paprika,” says Philip, laughing, “before I think paprika.”
“Exactly,” says Nathan, smiling at the approach of Vivienne with her bouquet. “Delilah sitting down at the piano and ripping off ten minutes of sheer genius and then shouting, ‘Oh my God, did you hear that?’ And Celia and I high as kites because we did hear it. Lucky us.”
“But words are not my art,” says Philip, humbly.
“Sure they are. You write eloquent recipes. With different line breaks they’d make great poems.”
Henri comes out on the deck and bows to Nathan and Philip. “Celia’s quesadillas await you.”
“Speaking of Celia,” says Nathan, as he and Philip go inside, “she informs me we’re having supper at your place tonight with the usual suspects. Perhaps the gang will come up with something you like.”
The usual suspects are:
Those Who Live At Ziggurat Farm: Philip, Lisa, Andrea, Marcel, Arturo, Henri, Vivienne, and Hilda who is eighty-four and lives in the cottage next to the bathhouse a stone’s throw from the farmhouse.
The Very British Richardsons: Constance and Joseph, both in their seventies, Constance a successful murder mystery writer nearly done with her twenty-seventh thriller, Joseph a painter of landscapes and portraits working on the last big painting he’ll make in Mercy before he and Constance move back to England for the remainder of their lives.
Tamara and Celine: A successful playwright in her fifties, Tamara is Hilda’s only child, and Celine is Tamara’s partner of thirty years and the author of Remembering Black, an acclaimed book about her experiences as an African American woman in American academia.
Nathan, Celia, and Delilah: Nathan eighty-two, Celia seventy-six, both longtime residents of Mercy and married for more than fifty years, Delilah their delightful twenty-two-year-old housemate, a musician, artist, and frequent visitor to Ziggurat Farm.
Andrea and Philip prepare a sumptuous supper, much wine is drunk, laughter is frequent, and after dessert everyone retires to the spacious living room where a fire is crackling in the hearth and the four farm dogs and Delilah’s two new pups are sprawled about and several cats are snoozing where humans want to sit.
When the humans have situated themselves among the animals and everyone is possessed of wine or tea or cocoa, Nathan says, “Philip needs a new title for his cookbook, and a subtitle, too. His publisher is threatening to delay publication if he can’t come up with something they like by tomorrow morning. I suggested to him the consortium gathered here tonight might be of assistance.”
“And if they don’t like our title,” says Andrea, defiantly, “we will publish his cookbook ourselves.”
“Every time we eat here,” says Tamara, each of her seven plays a resounding success, “Celine and I come away saying exquisite. Every time. Tonight no exception. Something about that word. Exquisite.”
“Marvelous word,” says Constance, who has so far in her life, with Joseph’s help, come up with twenty-seven titles for her murder mysteries. “We used exquisite in the title of my seventeenth book, the ninth in my Grady Pillsbury series. A Most Exquisite Murder.”
“I haven’t read any of your books yet,” says Arturo, who is currently reading Robinson Crusoe for the second time, but your titles intrigue me no end.”
“Shall we write down exquisite?” asks Vivienne, who is very sleepy. “In case we don’t forget?”
“Let’s not write anything down yet,” says Nathan, grinning at Vivienne. “First let’s say whatever pops into our heads.”
“Exquisite exquisiteness,” says Celine, laughing a sparkling laugh.
“The well-cooked ox,” says Joseph, happily drunk. “The bafflement of barbecues.”
“The Magic Kitchen!” shouts Henri, giggling.
“Exquisite comestibles,” says Delilah, shivering with excitement. “For voracious eaters who can’t stop eating.”
“Eyes bigger than my stomach,” says Celia, blushing.
“The magic cook,” says Vivienne, smiling sleepily at her father.
“The cook of magic,” says Arturo, laughing.
“Melted cheesery,” says Constance, tittering. “Scrumptious foodstuffs for esurient nibblers.”
“Food of the gods,” says Marcel, shaking his head. “No. Too grandiose.”
“Nothing is too grandiose,” says Nathan, grinning at Philip. “Speak chef.”
“Kitchen of love,” says Philip, thinking of his kitchen. “Place of quiet miracles.”
“Of knives and mincing,” says Andrea, recalling her previous life as a sous chef. “Timing the fish.”
“The onion eclipsed,” says Hilda, dramatically. “Garlic triumphant.”
“Philip’s kitchen,” says Lisa, getting up to fetch more wine.
“I got chills,” says Celine, gazing wide-eyed at Tamara.
“So did I,” says Tamara, nodding. “Philip’s Kitchen.”
“I, too, got chills,” says Constance, looking at Delilah. “Did you?”
Delilah nods. “That must be the title.”
“Must be,” says Joseph, aghast. “Remarkable how deep that went.”
“But why?” asks Philip, who gasped when Lisa said Philip’s Kitchen. “I mean… who is Philip? No one will know who Philip refers to. They’ll hate it at Tantamount.”
“They might not,” says Hilda, gazing fondly at Philip. “It’s lovely.”
“All the recipes did come from your kitchen,” says Arturo, nodding assuredly. “So no wonder Philip’s Kitchen sounds right.”
At ten the next morning, Philip calls Tiffany at Tantamount, she puts him on hold, and he doesn’t mind at all.
“Sorry about that,” says Tiffany, coming on the line a few minutes later. “Saturdays are usually pretty mellow around here, but my phone won’t stop ringing. What have you got for me?”
“May I ask you not to take another call while we talk?” says Philip, who has wanted to ask that of Tiffany for the last two years.
“Um… of course. Unless it’s Arno. We’re crashing a couple books and I have to take his calls. Sorry.”
“What does that mean? Crashing a book?”
“Rushing it out because the author or the subject is currently hot, so we crash the book to capitalize on the buzz.”
“I see. Thanks for explaining.”
“No worries. What have you got for me?”
“I’m going to put my daughter Vivienne on the line to tell you,” says Philip, winking at Vivienne who is standing buy.
“Your daughter?” says Tiffany, annoyed. “Oh no, why…”
“Here she is,” says Philip, handing the phone to Vivienne.
“Hi Tiffany,” says Vivienne, her little girl’s voice softening Tiffany. “The title of Papa’s new cookbook is Philip’s Kitchen.” She pauses for a moment before adding, “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm.”
“Would you say that again?” says Tiffany, hitting the Record button on her phone.
“Philip’s Kitchen,” says Vivienne, taking care with her pronunciation. “Exquisite Meals from Ziggurat Farm. Here’s Papa.”
Philip comes on the line and Tiffany says, “I love it. Made me cry. I’ll run it by Sales and let you know what they say.”
“Regardless of what they say,” Philip replies, his voice full of kindness, “that’s the title and subtitle. If Sales says No, I will return my advance and pursue other options.”
“Okay,” says Tiffany, breathlessly. “I’ll get back to you.”
Philip and Vivienne walk from the farmhouse to the one-acre deer-fenced vegetable garden where Andrea and Lisa and Delilah and Henri and Hilda are planting out seedlings, and Marcel and Arturo are busy preparing another bed for planting.
“Where is Tiffany?” asks Vivienne, holding her father’s hand. “How old is she?”
“In San Francisco,” says Philip, smiling curiously at his daughter. “She’s twenty-seven. Why do you ask?”
“I want to visualize her,” says Vivienne, letting go of Philip’s hand at the approach of Mimi and Alexandra, the farm’s two Golden Retrievers who are especially fond of Vivienne.
“She’s quite tall,” says Philip, who has only met Tiffany once. “As tall as Delilah. With short reddish brown hair and four small gold rings in one of her eyebrows, I can’t remember which one, and her eyes are dark blue. Her office is on the fourth floor of a modern building looking out on San Francisco Bay. When I met with her she was wearing a blue T-shirt and brown trousers and glossy red lipstick and hoop earrings.”
“Is she nice?” asks Vivienne, petting Alexandra.
“I think so,” says Philip, imagining Tiffany walking down the hall to Arno’s office to tell him the new title—Arno head of Sales. “Though I don’t really know her very well.”
And try as he might, Philip cannot imagine how Arno will respond to what Tiffany tells him.