Who really “writes” celebrity cookbooks? On the NY Times “ghost writer” kerfuffle

A story “I Was a Cookbook Ghostwriter” in The New York Times last week went in detail about how some celebrity chefs rely on ghostwriters to help them get their books in shape for publication. The story mostly recalled the author, Julia Moskins, personal experiences in the trenches of cookbook ghost writing. (Surprisingly, Moskin doesn’t mention that Martha Stewart’s early book, Entertaining and Weddings were both ghost written by writer Elizabeth Hawes.)

Among the story’s specifics was that a writer, Julia Turshen, worked with Gwyneth Paltrow on her book, My Father’s Daughter.  It also lays claim that Rachel Ray and Jamie Oliver also employs the use of ghostwriters to develop at least some recipes. Both authors took aim at the paper’s assertion via Twitter, denying the allegations:

Jamie Oliver went about it the old-fashioned way; he had a staffer contact Moskin’s editor directly, a point illuminated when she released a follow-up to the story  early today. Apparently, the chefs were insulted by the word “ghost writer,” but I’m wondering if the issue here, especially in Gwyneth’s case, is more a semantic discussion.

When most readers see the recipe in a cookbook, they see a simple head note, some ingredients and instructions.  Writing those few hundreds words isn’t the time-consuming part. The real work of cookbooks is more complicated: finding the concept, developing a balanced framework for the content, expanding it into a cookbook proposal, then doing research into ingredients before testing, reworking and retesting the actual recipes — and that’s before you get into food photography. In the UK television series, “Fifteen,” I recall Jamie Oliver telling a student that he wrote his books by speaking into recorder; presumably someone else transcribed them, extracted what he was after and helped him hone and shape the final verbage.

In writing about the book as it was coming out, Turshen penned her own account of the collaboration on the book for Food & Wine. “Producing the book required long days of brainstorming, grocery shopping, cooking, testing, readjusting, accumulating tall stacks of dirty dishes and writing everything down,” Turshen wrote, adding it took a “year or so gathering  [Gwyneth's] recipes, and the stories behind them.”

Meanwhile, in her author’s note, Gwyneth writes Turshen ”quantified, tested, and retested every recipe, oversaw the production of the photos, helped brainstorm in a crisis, and above all was my intellectual and emotional support through the whole process.”

Collaboration? Sure. Ghost writing? Or, as Moskin referred to it in her follow-up story, “Ghost cooking?” That’s how you define it.

Generally, the phrase “ghost writing” describes someone who writes on behalf of other people who tend to take the credit. Or, sometimes they collaborate and they get an “as told to” or “with” kind of credit. Executives, politicians and celebrities of screen and sport do it all the time.  Sometimes the writer interviews the subject and writes every word, sometimes they take a mass of written notes and partly-conceived chapters and whip it into shape. Or, they may help with organization, read over the author’s work, haunting them to keep the project on track.

And so, a confession. In the 1990s, I was hired to ghostwrite a book for a U.S. congressman. A guy called me at my newspaper, praised my work and we negotiated a deal. He handed me a spiral notebook with a couple hundred pages of writing and notes from various sources, including the congressman. I met the congressman only once. My job was to organize it into a coherent format and write it into one voice. (For a variety of reasons, mainly political climate change, the book wasn’t published.)  Also, I once conducted research and wrote chapters in a book for a travel writer. That’s typical ghostwriting. You write, they take credit, you keep your mouth shut and cash your check.

The reason is that a cookbook is more complicated due to its many working pieces. The story rightly notes that doing grunt work for better-known personalities is a fairly common job for food writers. Many chefs don’t develop recipes or cook in a way that translates well enough for home cooks to follow.

Working on one of my first food stories, a well-known chef assured me that he had a recipe written down so I didn’t need to take notes as he cooked. Thankfully, I did anyway. When he finally got me the recipe a week later, it was written in Portugese and designed to feed 50. So, I had to figure out the language, scale it down, track down substitutions for commercial ingredients and make the dish no less than eight times, tweaking and fixing it. But you know what? That recipe gave him the credit. After all, it was his dish. I was merely the conduit – admittedly with a byline. Later, when the restaurant contributed “his” recipe to a compilation cookbook, neither me or my newspaper got a mention. That happens far more often than you think.   

So I think that Gwyneth is right when she says she “wrote every word;” and I think the Times’ writer Julia Moskins is right when they say she had “a collaborator” who did a lot of heavy lifting on her project. (A caption calling Turshen a “ghostwriter” for Paltrow seems a bit strong; as a writer, Moskin likely didn’t even see that until the paper came out.) 

At the end of all this, I’m less interested (or surprised) that Bobby Flay has someone develop a spice rub section (he admits that he does), and more curious about the many delicious “blind items” in the story, as noted by Eater, including one note about a “famed chef” who wrote a tome on regional cooking that was actually developed by a New York-based food writer and another left under house arrest in Columbia when the chef wandered off…

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry" and "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School." Her third book, "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good" will be published in April 2014. All are published by Viking/Penguin.

Comments

  1. Very thoughtful commentary (as usual). I didn’t know that about Martha. I guess at the end of the day, I think it’s completely fine a celebrity had help because I always assumed they did.

  2. I appreciate this post! Mostly because it’s so thoughtful, but also because it helped clarify the NYT piece and follow-up as well as the notion of ‘ghost-writing’ (I like ‘ghost-cooking’, too). I wonder if those who have so very much help getting their books to publications could simply include a co-author – or, ‘with’ – on the cover; if in fact they’ve written together should not both (or all) get recognized? I can understand the ego thing … or at least the pride behind it … but still, it would be lovely if there was a more equal sharing of the credit!

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