This is an article about four local women who write cookbooks. But it’s more than that. It’s about following your passions, taking risks and doing what you love.
None of these women planned to be a food writer. One ran a retail shop, another was a schoolteacher, a third was a nurse, and the last started life thinking she’d find a career in theater arts. But ultimately, the culinary calling became too great to resist, and after meeting them, it’s easy to see why: This is the work they’re meant to do.
Coming up with new ideas has never been a problem for Susann Geiskopf-Hadler. This is, after all, the woman who wrote The Best 125 Meatless Pasta Dishes.
“People sometimes ask, ‘How can anyone come up with 125 meatless pasta recipes?’” says Geiskopf-Hadler, a longtime recipe developer and food writer. “But it just happens. Sometimes ideas come to me in the middle of the night.”
This past summer, as the Sacramento resident was writing the book that’s due out this month, The Complete Book of Vegetarian Grilling (Fair Winds Press, $19.95), she found herself stretching her creativity in new ways. “I probably never would have come up with something like grilled figs stuffed with blue cheese if I hadn’t been writing this book,” she says. “Some of the flavor combinations were really exciting and new.”
Although she does eat seafood, Geiskopf-Hadler is otherwise committed to vegetarianism, as her book titles reflect. Her interest in cooking and healthful eating began in the early ’70s, while she was attending California State University, Sacramento. “After I moved into my first apartment with roommates, we all realized we didn’t know how to cook, and began teaching ourselves,” she says. “And the more I read about cooking and nutrition and food, I got sort of scared into the vegetarian direction.”
But she never planned on writing about food. After earning a degree in psychology with a double minor in English and art in 1972, she opened a retail store in midtown, West of the Sun, where her focus was designing hats. But she was still experimenting with food and keeping track of recipes along the way. In 1978, encouraged by a friend from college, she published her first book, Putting It Up With Honey. And people have been encouraging her to write ever since.
“People have always come to me to publish books,” says Geiskopf-Hadler, whose 14th title, The 15-Minute Vegetarian (co-authored with Mindy Toomay), is due out later this year. “I’ve never had an agent, which is unusual.” In addition to the “meatless series,” some of her most popular works include The Vegan Gourmet and The Complete Vegan Cookbook.
Meanwhile, Geiskopf-Hadler has had a life. After growing up primarily in England (her father was in the military), she moved to Sacramento to attend college. In 1981, she married her husband, Guy, and in addition to raising their daughter, Natalie (now 18), the couple raised two nieces. “They’ve been like our daughters,” she says.
Although Geiskopf-Hadler once freelanced full-time, she now works full-time as a project manager for Geremia Pools, reserving her writing projects for nights and weekends.
Does she find time to sleep? “Yes, I love to sleep,” she laughs. “But writing about food is a fun, creative outlet, and the fruits of your labor make other people happy, so I really enjoy doing it. I think if you want to do something badly enough, you’ll find a way.”
Living “in the flow” seems to come naturally to Georgeanne Brennan.When deciding what to cook for dinner, she wanders through her garden or the local farmers market to see what’s fresh—a “seasonal” approach she first learned some 40 years ago, during her junior year abroad in France.
It’s a philosophy she continues to embrace not only in her daily life, but in all of her teachings, including her cookbooks.
“The French have this wonderful aesthetic of living with the seasons, cooking out of a garden, gathering wild herbs and greens and local cheeses, and working with what’s around you,” explains Brennan, who has been dividing her time between France and California since those early college years. While most of her days are now spent at her turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Winters, Brennan returns to Haute Provence every June and September, where she offers weeklong “culinary vacations” at the cooking school she opened there five years ago.
But most of the time, you can find Brennan sitting at her computer (sometimes in her nightgown), plugging away. Of the 20-odd titles she’s authored, she considers her first important book to be 1992’s Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style, which has sold nearly 100,000 copies and was nominated for a James Beard Award. Other noteworthy titles include The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence, winner of the James Beard Award for Best International Cookbook in 1998, and Savoring France: Recipes and Reflections on French Cooking, which received a Versailles International Cookbook Award in 1999.
Brennan’s most recent work, 2003’s Great Greens, is “a straightforward book that tells you all about the different greens and how you can substitute them,” she says. “For example, if you don’t have kale, use chard, but add a little bit of lemon juice so you wind up with the same sense of flavor.” Green also is the theme of Brennan’s current book project, “Green Eggs and Ham,” which draws on all of Dr. Seuss’ books and is due out in fall 2006. “The recipes will be based on food-related things in the books, or visuals that evoke the thought of food,” she explains. “It’s really fun and quirky.”
As accomplished as she is, Brennan is not a trained writer, nor is she a trained cook. (Again, it’s all about the flow.) The short story goes something like this: She grew up in Laguna Beach, got a master’s degree in history from the University of California at San Diego, married Donald Brennan in 1963, and had two children, Ethel and Oliver. While teaching history, French and English at Dixon High School, Brennan and a colleague started a vegetable seed company, which led to writing about food, mostly for Northern California newspapers. As her new career took off, Brennan decided to quit teaching, and changes were under way in her personal life as well: She married her second (and current) husband, Jim Schrupp, in 1987. When the seed company closed in 1991, Brennan’s full-time writing career began.
“It’s funny sometimes to think about, ‘How did I go from that to this?’” says Brennan, whose mother was an adventuresome cook, sparking her early interest in food. “But the themes have always really been there. I love to cook, I love to eat, and I like to teach. But I never really thought it would wind up that I’d be at this point in my life doing this kind of writing about food.”
Sonja Tejeda was moving to a new home around the time we did this interview, but you never would have known it. With blue-green eyes sparkling and a ready laugh, she spoke with fizzy enthusiasm about her life and her work, including her first cookbook, Dinner’s Ready! (self-published, $12.95), which was published last year.
Three weeks was all it took for her to write the book, which instantly tells you a lot about Tejeda, a go-getter in the extreme. In addition to running her thriving East Sacramento-based business, Impeccable Tastes Fine Catering, Inc., for eight years, Tejeda is a veteran cooking teacher, continues to write books, and also is a single mom.
Juggling all these plates isn’t difficult, she says, “because I genuinely love what I do.” But getting there required a major career change for Tejeda, who started out as a nurse. “I just knew that if I was going to survive, it couldn’t be in that environment,” she says. “I got so fed up with the corporate world that I finally said, ‘You know, I can go and make sandwiches and be a lot happier.’” With no training and little money, the then 34-year-old Tejeda took a giant leap of faith and started her catering business. “When you’re at rock bottom,” she says, “the only place to go is up.”
With a catering menu featuring everything from spanakopita (filo triangles filled with feta and spinach) to Jamaican jerk chicken salad to Mediterranean lavash sandwiches, Tejeda’s melting-pot approach to cooking reflects a lifelong fascination with regional cuisine. “I was always curious about how people in different regions cooked, whether it was Louisiana, Texas or Massachusetts,” says Tejeda, who has lived in a number of regions herself, from her native Mississippi to Texas to Hawaii and California. Her maternal grandfather came from Sicily, adding to the cultural mix.
But the thing for which she’s probably best-known is teaching people how to put a meal on the table in 20 minutes or less, and that’s what Dinner’s Ready! is all about. “It’s not so much about the recipes,” she says, “but about the ‘how to’—how to create healthy, tasty meals in a time-efficient way.” The idea for the cookbook sprang directly from her years of teaching at the Learning Exchange, where she taught “20 Meals in 20 Minutes” and variations thereof. “Over time, students would say, ‘You really need to write a cookbook,’ or ‘You need to capture this information in a way that everyone can get it,’” says Tejeda. Finally, Tejeda stopped teaching in order to write the book.
As a divorced mother of three, Tejeda knows firsthand the challenges of cooking healthful meals in a hurry. “I swore off fast food about five years ago,” she says. “Pasta takes as much time as Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Her daughters—Jessica, 12, Vella, 8, and 6-year-old Angela—have learned early on to “experiment with all kinds of food,” says Tejeda. Still, kids will be kids, so there are recipes for macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets with mustard dipping sauce in the “kid-friendly meals” section of Tejeda’s cookbook.
With two more books in the works—one on appetizers, the other about the spirituality of food—Tejeda maintains her whirlwind schedule, smiling all the way. “It’s all about enjoying what you do, whether in life or in cooking,” she says.
Terri Pischoff Wuerthner
The turning point for Terri Pischoff Wuerthner happened around age 4, when her Cajun grandmother walked into the house and handed her a pair of black lace gloves.
“I fell in love with her right away,” says Wuerthner of this first meeting with her grandmother. “And I fell in love with cooking just watching her.”
Now, about a half-century later, Wuerthner is taking everything she learned from her grandmother, father and other Cajun relatives and compiling it in a memoir-cookbook, In a Cajun Kitchen: A Culinary Journey to My Acadian Roots (St. Martin’s Press). Due out in spring 2006, the book will meld some 225 recipes alongside stories of love and family.
“It’s really two books,” explains Wuerthner, a Bay Area transplant who moved to Fair Oaks this past October with her husband, Richard. “It’s a cookbook as well as a memoir about four generations of people—my grandparents, great grandparents, my father’s generation and mine.” The recipes date as far back as the 1850s, and Wuerthner is taking great pains to keep things authentic, including the phraseology of the time, such as “cook the onion, bell pepper and celery until they’re tired.”
“This is a traditional Cajun cookbook, using the traditional recipes, as opposed to the more recent way of cooking Cajun, using commercial shortcuts,” she explains. “I don’t think there’ll be any canned ingredients except tomatoes.”
Wuerthner, who grew up in San Francisco and had always lived within an hour of the city until moving here, has a long and impressive history as a food expert. Although she has a theater arts degree, she didn’t really use it, instead starting her professional life running a home-based catering business. Along the way, she graduated from the now-defunct Le Cordon Rouge culinary school in San Rafael, served as chef/instructor at Bauman College, founded the Marin-Petaluma Slow Food Convivium, co-authored books (notably Food for Life: The Cancer Prevention Cookbook), and wrote articles for major publications such as Bon Appétit and Cooking Light. But In a Cajun Kitchen is her first solo outing as a book author, and arguably the weightiest project she’s ever taken on.
It’s also been a long time in coming, as she’s been chipping away at it, on and off, for the past 13 years. And it probably would never have happened, she says, if she hadn’t made a trip back to see the old plantation in 1992. “I went to Louisiana with my sisters to see the old farm,” she says, “and as we were driving toward Baldwin, where my father was born, my sister Bonnie said, ‘This is the turnoff to the farm where our great-grandfather lived.’ All of a sudden they weren’t just names—they were people! As soon as I came home, I started writing.”
For Wuerthner, Cajun cooking is simply a way of life. “I grew up thinking everyone had three kinds of pepper on the table, and gumbo on Fridays,” she says.
Although her current writing schedule is jam-packed—she’s juggling a cookbook project for Bauman College alongside In a Cajun Kitchen—Wuerthner is planning to participate more heavily in the local food scene when things lighten up and has already joined the Sacramento Slow Food Convivium. “I believe this is the emerging food scene in Northern California,” she says, “and I’m looking forward to getting involved here.”