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The Right Mix: Tuning in to the Music Behind Cookbooks

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The Right Mix: Tuning in to the Music Behind Cookbooks

The crush of electric guitar and cymbal crash from the speakers complement the sounds of a stand mixer beating butter and sugar until fluffy in Kate Leahy’s kitchen. When Leahy co-authored Cookie Love with Chicago chef Mindy Segal, she sometimes turned to Black Sabbath to slip into Segal’s persona. “A tablespoon of me is heavy metal,” begins the head note for the Black Sabbath cookie, inspired by the band and using black cocoa to take the popular chocolate sandwich cookie to the dark side. That combination of cranking up music and cooking isn’t uncommon, as music acts as an important ingredient in cookbook writing.

When Molly Wizenberg worked on revisions for her first book, the New York Times-awarded food memoir with recipes, A Homemade Life, Eddie Vedder’s often plaintive stylings from the Into the Wild soundtrack played in the background. “There was something in that album I wanted to capture.” Wizenberg said. “I listened to it for the place it took me emotionally that I was trying to capture in the book.” Using music as a foil for getting into the creative work eventually yielded a white noise where Wizenberg acknowledged, “at a certain point, I couldn’ t hear it anymore.”

The common theme of baking can be found in Dorie Greenspan’ s cookbooks, but that’ s not the only theme they share. This James Beard award-winning author of 11 cookbooks, most recently, Dorie’s Cookies, confirmed she listens to music all the time and her 5 CD changer in New York’ s been outfitted with the same CDs for 15 years. The music gives a sense of time to her recipe development but at one point, she swapped out the fifth CD. “I was never in a yay! place when I got to CD 5, so I changed it to Zouk.”

In addition to providing a platform to dive into emotional writing and keeping track of time, music also offers a mood boost to food writing cooks. Reggae offered a relaxed atmosphere to recipe development in first time author, Kristin Donnelly’ s kitchen. As she worked on Modern Potluck, she tuned into the Heptones Pandora station. “It put me in a good mood. It created a vibe and I didn’t have to focus on the music.”

For her first cookbook that was due in 90 days, the blender girl, Tess Masters, dove into the “Danger Zone” with Kenny Loggins because the song “got me going.” For her third book, The Perfect Blend, she found a different anthem: “Let It Go” from the animated movie, Frozen.“I had all these pieces in play for the book that were a bit like a Tetris puzzle and when I would get too in my head, my assistant would put on the song and it enabled me to let it all go.” Masters described the release it provided, “I would be five years old again, wondering why I was stressing about the book?”

For her third cookbook, Real Sweet author, Shauna Sever tuned into an Ed Sheeran album on Spotify, recalling the hypnotic guitar drew her into the music, and said, “If I was really desperate, I’ d listen to John Mellencamp.” While writing her fourth cookbook proposal, Sever played the Avett Brothers and the Civil Wars for songs rooted in storytelling.

Some authors turned to music for only specific parts of the cookbook writing process. “I get easily distracted,” said James Beard Foundation and IACP nominated author of five cookbooks, including The Pho Cookbook, Andrea Nguyen.“When I’m writing, I don’ t listen to music, but when I’ m working through recipes, I will turn on my Macy Gray or Burt Bacharach Pandora station as a way to keep off social media while I’ m cooking.”While chopping and preparing her mise en place or during clean-up, Donnelly described also listening to podcasts like Local Mouthful by Philadelphia food writers and cookbook authors, Marisa McClellan and Joy Manning.

“I was all Sia, all the time,” said Molly Yeh of the musical backdrop behind her IACP award-winning first cookbook Molly on the Range. “Sia is the Mahler of pop music.” On the first page of her book, Yeh starts her story by rooting the reader into the big role music has played in her life and that “there was always music around the house.” Of Sia’s music, Yeh said, “her music is so emotional and extreme that it got me into the place of accessing the emotions for my brain and got my memories going. It helped me dig deep and yank them out. It made me feel like, ‘ yay! I’ve got this.” A trained percussionist who studied at Juilliard, Yeh included a shout-out to the Australian singer in the acknowledgements section of her book: “To Sia for providing the round-the-clock soundtrack for writing this book.”


While writing her first cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea, Annelies Zijderveld relied on Coldplay’ s Mylo Xyloto (for cooking) and Snow Patrol’ s Fallen Empires (for writing and editing). She can be found looking for her next favorite taco truck or on Instagram @anneliesz.

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