The bane of every food writer’s existence is the careless mistakes we can make: mistyping the amount of an ingredient or a detail in the directions, thereby sending out to trusting readers a flawed recipe. It happens all too often.
After my book The Pleasures of Cooking for One had gone to print, I discovered to my horror two such mistakes in it. The first disturbing revelation occurred when I was describing to a friend the flavor of the Sauce Gribiche that I love as “mustardy and pickly,” and she looked at the recipe and said, “But there’s no mustard in it.” She was right—it didn’t cut the mustard!
Then recently I had a letter from a former rector of the church I have been a member of for many, many years here in New York. He is now living in a retirement community in Ohio and was enjoying a copy of my book. In fact, he said he was cooking his way through it à la Julie with considerable success. BUT he met his Waterloo over Blanquette de Veau. Not enough liquid, so what there was boiled away and left the veal dry and stringy. With trepidation I looked up the ingredients listed in the setting copy, hoping it was the printer who had been at fault. No such luck: I had called for only ¼ cup broth, when clearly I had intended 1 ¼ cups.
Usually a sharp-eyed copyeditor can catch most errors, but in both these instances the omissions were hard to spot. There was no reason than anyone would know that the Gribiche had ½ tablespoon of Dijon mustard in it (except for me—after all I wrote the recipe and have made it dozens of times) and you’re not going to know that the blanquette needed that extra 1 cup broth until you see that the pan has almost dried out.
Fortunately, the errors have been corrected now in subsequent reprints, and I hope those who have early books will find this blog and make the changes. Meanwhile I am consumed with guilt over my pastor’s dried-out veal. I console myself that it at least put us in touch again (food has a way of doing that) and that he revealed himself as an instinctive cook by adding more broth, even if it wasn’t quite enough and a little too late.
What is important is for the author to come clean and confess to the mistake and then for the publisher to correct it. In the old days errata slips were sometimes tucked into copies in the bookstore but in this automated age that is hard to do. And many publishers would rather not be embarrassed by admitting errors. With good reason. Years ago, when Craig Claiborne was the food editor at The New York Times, I persuaded him to do a cookbook for beginners, which we called A Kitchen Primer. Alas, the first printing contained about a dozen errors. As soon as they were discovered we printed one of those errata slips and they were inserted into the books. The Primer was very successful and was nominated as one of the best books of the year by what we then called the Mustard Awards (this was before the days of the James Beard Foundation and the IACP cookbook awards and the modest ceremony was sponsored by French’s mustard). But when the company discovered those errata slips they withdrew Craig’s name and he was disqualified—for being honest.
It isn’t just cookbook writers, of course, who suffer the humiliation of errata. Mysterious things can happen to any writer’s work—usually beyond his control and often without his knowledge. For years every edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems contained a slip of the printer’s finger which changed the whole meaning of a line in one of my favorite poems of his, Among School Children. Aristotle in the botched version was called “Soldier Aristotle,” which never made much sense to me. Finally it was discovered that what Yeats had written was “Solider Aristotle,” comparing him to Plato in the line above, who “thought nature but a spume that plays/Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” And that did make sense. Poor Yeats. All those years of being misrepresented.
Was it Yeats’s fault? Was it the printer’s? We’ll never know. Whereas with the cookbook writer, it is usually the careless author who is to blame.