by Maria Ribas.
Making the Books in Mass. This is the first installment in a series on Cooking the Books that will feature the stand-out cookbook talent of our home state.
If you’re ever in Hatfield, MA, take a drive down North Street. Pass the horse pasture, follow the narrow curves of the road, and soon you will see a big red barn, not unlike many others in this part of the state. But this particular barn just happens to house one of America’s foremost culinary agencies.
Our farmers and fishers and chefs aren’t the only ones celebrating food and creating a vibrant local community for culinary innovation and appreciation. Massachusetts has a significant concentration of cookbook publishers–like America’s Test Kitchen and Harvard Common Press–and a heaping serving of talented cookbook authors–like Sanford D’Amato, Ana Sortun, and Alana Chernila. These writers, chefs, bloggers, agents, and photographers are creating some of your favorite cookbooks right here in our state. But they’re also devout foodies who believe more than anything in helping get local food communities the recognition they deserve. Shopping local should start at your local bookstore, where you can easily find a locally produced cookbook, and then a perfect recipe to use all the delicious fare from your locally sourced CSA box. The Lisa Ekus Group works with many of our local chefs, authors, and photographers to create beautiful and inspiring cookbooks. And you can be sure that any trip into your local bookstore is sure to turn up a locally produced cookbook.
For 33 years, The Lisa Ekus Group has been representing and developing the creative work of chefs, cookbook authors, restaurateurs, and photographers. They’ve worked with many of your favorite legends and celebrity chefs–Craig Claiborne, Jacques Pepin, Marcella Hazan, Emeril Lagasse, Mollie Katzen–but are still proud to have over 25% of their client list be made up of new, unpublished talent, as well as many local authors.
From the sleepy farm town of Hatfield, Lisa Ekus and Sally Ekus, Lisa’s daughter and agency partner, negotiate cookbook contracts with top publishers, secure sponsorships from multi-million dollar companies, and land placements for their clients in national media outlets such as the Today show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Eating Well, Bon Appétit, Food52, Southern Living, and many others.
“We like to say we do big city work in a small country atmosphere,” says Sally Ekus. I recently visited her in her barn corner office (it overlooks a snow-covered field, not a skyline), where she fields phone calls and negotiates deals as part of her work as a literary agent.
While New York City may be the hotbed for publishing and other media, the Ekus’s have crafted their own culinary hub in Hatfield. And unlike many literary agencies, The Lisa Ekus Group takes a wider view on expanding a culinary career. As Sally explained, it’s a one-stop shop that helps a diverse client list build their careers from every angle, whether it’s selling a cookbook proposal, increasing visibility through PR, or developing and building a brand.
The sprawling barn and attached farmhouse that form The Ekus Group office are also a cookbook lover’s paradise. The house has a professional-grade kitchen for media training, where clients can rehearse for TV segments in a space that simulates a real studio—which means they’ll even have to brave the hot glare of studio lighting.
Cookbook authors who make the scenic drive to Hatfield will also find thousands and thousands of cookbooks spread over walls and walls of bookshelves. The cookbook library has been built up over decades, and it may be one of the most impressive private cookbook collections in the state.
“Many authors and clients enjoy coming out here because they have access to our extensive library for their research. We often cook together and spend hours talking about their brand, how to better market and promote themselves, and new cookbook ideas. Sometimes they have a general idea for a next book, and looking through our cookbook library helps them do the research to refine the idea,” explains Sally.
Sally, who refers to Lisa as her “mom-boss,” never intended to end up in the family business. She studied sociology in college and was accepted into a master’s program, but then decided to defer and spend some time at home. A few months at home turned into a career as a literary agent, where she’s since built a client list of both established and debut cookbook authors over her five years with the agency.
Now that she’s back in her hometown, Sally has carved out her own culinary circle. All around town, she says hello to the artisan food purveyors and chefs she knows. We stopped at Sutter Meats in Northampton, an all-local, all-pasture-raised butcher shop that opened several weeks ago. Terry and Susan Ragasa own the shop, and they know all about Sally’s food allergies–she can’t have dairy products from cows, chicken eggs, gluten, or mustard. They’re tough allergies for a culinary literary agent, but they’ve helped her hone in on the health and wellness trends that have been a driving force in the cookbook market.
At the butcher shop, Sally also says hello to Tim Wilcox and Caroline Pam of The Kitchen Garden, a local farm that produces and bottles Sally’s favorite sriracha. The shelves of the shop are filled with local, homespun food; you can easily find your next favorite barbecue sauce, jam, or maple syrup here, and it’s very likely made by one of your neighbors.
Supporting our neighbors doesn’t just happen at the farmer’s market—take a scan through the cookbook shelf at your local bookstore, and you’re certain to find either Sally or Lisa thanked in the acknowledgments of a book. That book could just be your new favorite. And certainly it will remind you that, all around us, big ideas are being conceived, created, and displayed–whether on bookshelves or grocery shelves–by local hands.
If you’re looking for more cookbooks written by local authors and agented by The Ekus Group, check out these titles:
Stuffed: The Ultimate Comfort Food Cookbook: Taking Your Favorite Foods and Stuffing Them to Make New, Different and Delicious Meals by Dan Whalen (Boston, MA)
Sunday Brunch: Simple, Delicious Recipes for Leisurely Mornings by Betty Rosbottom (Amherst, MA)
The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas by Mary Lou and Robert Heiss (Northampton, MA)
Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun (Lincoln, MA)
Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook: A Seasonal, Vegetarian Cookbook by Leslie Cerier (Amherst, MA)
Maria Ribas is an editor, blogger, and connoisseur of all things pecan pie. By day she acquires and edits cookbooks and lifestyle books, and by night she cooks, writes, and snaps photos for Cooks & Books. She thinks a good cookbook can help anyone create restaurant-worthy meals and take control of how and why they eat. You can find her talking publishing, cooking, and life at www.cooksplusbooks.com.