7.26.2010

Redemption

"Clutch"
photo by
Pupil Photography


Last June I found myself "inconsolable" when the hard drive to my laptop crashed. Aside from losing years worth of photos, the single most valued possession contained within that processor was a food memoir we'd been working on. Having previously been contacted by a fancy (yet-totally-down-to-Earth) agent from New York, I was determined to get a book proposal and writing sample wrapped up and sent out to the other coast ASAP. In a span of six months I had become convinced that perhaps my childhood dream of getting published wasn't so far out of reach after all. As our families would say, "as with all things Ali and Evan, a scenic back road will be likely be taken."

Admittedly the process didn't come naturally to me, especially in comparison to the ease of writing a blog post. When writing for the book I struggled getting anything down on the page. I felt like I fought for every one of those sentences. To help us write, said Agent encouraged us to have a clear audience in mind, as well as a focus. Would this book be conventional? Used in the kitchen? Or pretty? Put on a coffee table? While I had the audience part down (ahem- I was hoping that would be all of you), Evan and I still weren't sure what the book was about. It felt weird thinking about writing a "Little Red Bike Cafe Cookbook," especially because at 1.5 years old, our cafe's story had yet to unfold. We knew we wanted a book that was beautiful, contained recipes, pictures and diagrams, but had stories, too. We wanted some depth to it. Perhaps a little fluff. We basically wanted to tell the story of us, and about where our journey thus far in life, and specifically with food, has taken us. While it seemed awful narcissistic to think others would care to read (let alone purchase) a book containing such information, we did feel confident that we had something to say, and more telling, a desire to try. Through our interaction with our customers and our blog readers, we also thought it was worth taking a chance to see if we were right. We decided to shoot for a food memoir; in our hearts we were hoping for something between the beauty of the perfect coffee table book, the functionality of a beloved edged-stained cookbook, and the heart-warming nature of a good read you keep by your bedside. This memoir contained bits and pieces from Evan's and my history, this blog, and recipes and stories from home, travels abroad, and our cafe. I was four months into my writing project when the hard drive seized and I lost everything. Every single word I'd written.

I was devastated. At the time I felt that "this is perhaps the most overwhelming thing that can happen to a writer." Eight days after I typed that sentence my mom suffered cardiac arrest, twice, and survived with her life after a 5% chance. Five percent. I'll never forget when the doctor made a number out of my mother's existence. Needless to say, I had a major shift in perspective. Losing my hard drive was nothing in comparison to the thought of losing my mom. As the months rolled by, the focus was on the health and well-being of our family and business. We threw everything we had into getting lost in the moment, and any thought of a future book was fleeting, and every memory faded. We bought a new hard drive and continued telling our story on the blog, despite how censored our writing had become due to formal courtesies and endless legal peacocking from an opposing team's side. Truth be told, I've always preferred writing on the blog, mostly because it feels...safe. I rarely feel harshly judged by my audience, and I have the pleasure of using the "delete comment" button if I completely disagree with your tone or point of view. Writing on a blog platform allows me so much more control than if I were to try and actually write an entire book. After the tanked economy, the cafe's flood, and my mom's cardiac arrest I just felt lucky that we had all survived. I didn't feel up to the task of trying to rewrite anything, and more so, I didn't want to take the risk of failing in a pursuit of getting known, of doing something more, or going after the success I desired. P.S. This is not a way to live.

Yet throughout this time I carried a nagging feeling that a story was developing, and had been doing so all along. Though I wasn't prepared and I was too anxious to tackle writing at the time, this didn't stop the story from continuing to grow and build, eventually creating the momentum that got us through those very last days of our business. It's the story that made our ambition of opening up a cafe successful, despite the loss along the way. I know I like writing this blog. But there is more to it: I enjoy being the storyteller, or how I see it, the voice of the story. Life changed when we closed the doors to the cafe. For one, we no longer had venue to outsource and exchange our creative energy. We do miss and crave that interaction but ultimately accept that leaving that building was in the best interest for everybody involved. We feel as though we were meant to start our business there, and were meant to end it there, too. But as with all things that we have experienced so far in life, we know that's not where our story ends.

It was this notion that motivated Evan to call the long-lost-agent in New York and spark her memory of a couple who owned a little cafe located on a peninsula on the other side of the coast. Despite the year long break in communication, she remembered who we were, and again encouraged us to explore the possibilities of writing a book. Furthermore, she suggested we look beyond the confines of just Little Red Bike Cafe's customers as our sole audience. We were all in agreement that while the cafe was surely an important chapter in the history of our lives, the book would still need to resonate as a page-turner after this fact. In other words, the show must go on even when the cafe's future remains uncertain.

I feel really blessed to have the insight of this agent, we'll call her Agent K., because she is extremely gifted at filtering our ideas. Much like a flour sifter, she's able to refine the thought process into what will eventually create the tastiest product. I'm keeping her anonymous because right now we're just in the beginning stages of courting one another, seeing where this leads. That said, her input during the process has been invaluable, and she's the very reason why I'm writing this blog post today. Agent K. reminded me that not everybody who reads the blog ate at the cafe. She went on to explain that there will have to be something else that draws our readers in besides the sheer existence of the food establishment. It's a voice; a picture; a story; a connection. Quite obviously, I feel it is my duty to tap into this connection so that you may enjoy reading and experiencing food from our perspective, as much as we enjoy relaying it. My goal over the next three months is to sit down and produce a writing sample for a book. As before, more food memoir than just cookbook. This would not be a recreation of what was lost, but instead will be a completely new attempt. I'm excited about the potential of this project because it no longer feel like a task or a risk to write. This time around it feels more like a redemption--quite simply, the time has come. There. I wrote it. We have officially put it out there: we're working on a book.

In writing the outline I'd like to enlist the help of the blog readers. Specifically I'm dying to know what your favorite cookbooks are. For starters think about the best cookbooks, coffee table books, and food memoirs--what makes them your favorite? What are some lacking? What do you consider essential about a cookbook? Are you a person that just wants to look at the pictures? Stretch your minds even further, try to imagine that you've never heard about us, seen our pictures, or read this blog (what a sad world that would be). What would make you pick up a book about us, if you didn't know us? Basically what I'm asking here is, if Evan and I are setting our sights on writing a cookbook: "What would you want to know? See? Taste? Feel?"

I know that seems like an awful lot to chew at but we'd greatly appreciate your participation in this excercise. I know there are many readers who don't often comment (or comment at all), don't like public comments, or don't understand how to correctly leave a comment (hi Mom!), so I encourage you to send us an email (littleredbikecafe@gmail.com) with your questions, thoughts, and ideas regarding your thought on the substance of a great book. Please do not hesitate to voice your opinion. I ensure you we will read and discuss every one thoughtfully and together. Thank you for indulging us. We can't wait to read the responses.

26 comments:

Liza said...

This makes me so happy! I have so much to say I'm going to just send you an email soon.

whitney said...

I really don't remember how I found your blog but once I did, I was hooked. You guys seemed to be creating what I've always called in my head "fun food" or, if you read Francesca Lia Block's books when you were a teenager like me, Weetzie Bat food: fresh, colorful, delicious, and whimsical in its presentation from menu to plate.

And then the more I read, the more I was intrigued by your adventure as a young couple, as young people, and as community-oriented people. I loved hearing about your personal life as much as the cafe's business.

When I travelled from Buffalo, New York to Portland last summer, I made sure to visit the LRBC. It required a ridiculous bike ride by me and my brother but when we got there, a zoo bomb and latte made the sweat and hills fade from memory.

Anyway, all that is a long way of saying that I'm psyched about the potential of an Ali & Evan book. As far as cookbooks/food story books I've enjoyed, the following is a short list: Homemade Life, Harvest, Laurel's kitchen, Moosewood cookbook (Mollie Katzen's original), How it all Vegan, Eating Animals, and Chez Panisse.
Good luck!

erin said...

I live in San Diego, and can't even remember how I found your blog. I lived in pdx about 11 years ago, so I'm sure I found it through some website.

photos...mouthwatering, nummy, simple photes. Much like the ones on this blog. I like Barefoot Contessa layout style (recipe on one page, corresponding photo on other side)

Lyndie said...

A Homemade Life changed the way I thought about cookbooks. A cookbook that made me laugh and cry and want to start baking @ midnight all at the same time! However it did need pictures and if your blog is any indication, you have some beautiful ones to share! It would also be nice for your readers that did love eating @ the cafe to have a few recipes to satisy their cravings and nostalgia. Pasilla aioli? Sugar puffs? There are so many!

Best of luck to you and Evan on this adventure!

Mary Beth said...

I am from a smallish Nebraska town and am a new grandma. I was probably NOT your "customer" but I read the blog every day and dreamed of what I would eat if I got up the nerve to come to your cafe.

I WILL purchase the book.

I'd love photos and recipes and how the recipe came to be and HOW you made it! In what pan? How did you come up with recipes?

I have been a homemaker my whole life and love cooking for others. I collect cookbooks and read them several times a year.

Best of luck with the writing.

kati said...

my fave food blog is sunday-suppers.com
not exactly your style, but the photos and food are amazing.

good luck with all this! i wish you luck with everything you do :)

Lindsey said...

Agreed! Amazing food photography + well-architectured writing + letting us in on some of the personal sides of your story is what always kept you at the top of my blog roll!

Although I had the good fortune of living close enough to visit the cafe in person, I would have been a reader otherwise too! I actually only made it into the cafe twice, but would often make dinner and eat it while reading your blog, pretending that I was eating Sunday brunch instead :)

I'm more of a cover-to-cover cookbook reader myself (Alice Waters' "The Art of Simple Food" is the only one I use regularly for reference) and would go nuts for a version of your blog in narrative cookbook form.

DavnRenee said...

Brief background on a recipe is always nice. Photos are great, but some of my favorite recipes are so perfectly described in words, I can picture the result without a glossy pic.
Cant get enough anecdotal stuff; techniques, how to's,favorite kitchen tools, food geek type factoids, etc.
I get much use of my Mario Batali "Molto Italiano" book (great recipes, photos and fact/stories).

On a local level, my Caprial Pence "Bistro Style Cuisine" is dog-eared and stained more than most others. Simple, unique, fluid, local ingredients, and great use the "why" element noted in the side columns of many recipes.

You two have such an amazing ability to capture flavors and ingredient combos that are fresh and a little off from typical fare. Capture that and put it on paper, you cant go wrong.

PS-Every time we drive past the old place, Jack points and says "Coffee?"

Cheers

Anonymous said...

So happy to hear you are galvanized to do this book. I enjoy your writing, photos and NEED THE RECIPES TO MAKE THE FOOD (as I am far from Oregon)! My input would be to, as you say you plan to, go even more memoir/short story route than cookbook--ala Laurie Colwin's 'Home Cooking' and Ruth Reichl's non-cookbooks. The less pretense, instruction and glossy photos, and the more humor, tidbit and in depth stories about travel, occasions, relationships, etc. the better. Backstories on the recipe itself are fun. Maybe even some sketches instead of photos of the food like in Moosewood cookbook, the first I recall leafing through with anticipation as a kid...

Anonymous said...

You write with such passion that I was wondering when you would actually write a book. My favorite is not your food or recipes but stories of your struggles in life like your mom's heart attack or even better your relationship with Evan. As a reader you often make me feel like I was there. You have many examples of this in your blog but one that stands out was a holiday dinner for the homeless under a Portland bridge that had such compassion and understanding. My son is a chef so I will also ask his view on cookbooks and write more later. Best of luck. By the way one of my friends lost her whole romance novel on her hard drive crash, but that was much easier to re-create.

evil cake lady said...

Hey guys, I am one of those people who reads your blog, barely ever comments, lives in pdx and yet only made it to LRBC twice. I read your blog because I love your voices and I love your stories. A Homemade Life was a great melding of memoir and recipes, but I think someone else mentioned the only thing it lacked were photos! I am more of a baker than a cook, and The Cake Bible is my all-time fave for all the freaking explanations (I love knowing WHY) and for all the measurements in grams. I know precise measurements isn't as important in cooking as it is in baking, but I have come to hate measuring cups and spoons. (Think about your international audience!) Make the recipes personal for us--tell us how it came to be, how you two work together on it, what you love about it. If I came upon your book in a store and didn't know you, I would want to know about you--your lives, your relationship to food and yourselves, how food has changed you, and gorgeous gorgeous photos of your food. Well laid-out recipes and process photos help too. I loved the layout and look of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home.
Good luck you guys, and I can't wait to come to book reading and have you sign my copy!
ECL

nopo steve said...

cook books with lots of great pictures are probably the ones that i buy (usually on impulse) most often, but the ones that i go back to all the time are probably the ones that offer simple recipes with easy to read recipes that have many variations for customization.

My "go to" books are the Mark Bittman "How to Cook Everything..." series - it's simple, and has a lot of customization suggestions, and the latest edition (i think? it's a couple years old now) of "The Joy of Cooking" - it's a small thing, but i love how they bold the ingredients so you can scan a recipe easily, and it's very comprehensive.

having loved your recipes at the lrbc, i am sure i will buy your book when it is released. i always keep a few "specialty" books at hand as well as the "encylopedia" types (Veganomicon, Tillamook Cheese recipe book, etc).

my one request would be to tell what you did to that glorious rosemary-mushroom gravy. i still miss sunday brunch.

Madeline said...

Thanks for the bozo shout out. Now everyone knows how inept I am in dealing with all things technological.
xxoo Mom

Laura - The Simmons Squad said...

I do believe one of the very first posts I submitted after we met contained operatives words such as "prolific" and "passionate". Another more recent post by another blogger described your photographs as the equivalent to "food porn". I too am happy although not surprised that this particular "scenic backroad" for you both is indeed the epitome of has transpired over the years and the endless possibilities to come...something more to untap between you guys? Looking forward to it! Congrats

Velomann said...

My better half is really the cookbook connoisseur in the family, but I've been reading about food more recently. Someone recommended to me the manga (yes, a Japanese comic book) titled Oishinbo. It's about Izakaya, Japanese pub food, and the search for the perfect menu. I was completely absorbed by the story, and it's a real ode to the importance of love for good ingredients, as well as the vital importance of the company you keep to the enjoyment of any meal. Actually, reminds me A LOT of your story as blogged over the past several years. I can totally see a Little Red Bike Cafe manga. Check it out and see if you don't agree.

I'm also just scratching the surface of M.K. Fisher's food writing. Not cookbooks, but good quality writing about food.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I saw this coming. I always imagined that you guys would write a food memoir describing more about the personal experience with opening a cafe. I found your blog because I wanted to read about the trials and tribulations in opening a small restaurant, and your blog was the ONLY thing I found.

I have read many memoirs about people's experience with going to cooking school (The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry was a good one), and i think that format would suit you well. By tailoring it to the story of the restaurant, you would have a unique story that many people would be interested in, and publishers would want to buy because it is different form other memoirs out there.

If you choose to go ahead with a cookbook, check out "The Soup Peddler" as the layout of the book is half cookbook and half memoir and sounds the closest to what you have described in your blog. Good luck, and I look forward to reading the book!

kristin said...

check out Momofuku - similiar food story/cookbook format

Louise said...

Another excellent memoir/cookbook is Stephanie Alexander's 'Stephanie's Seasons'. It breaks all the big colour photo rules and is printed on cream paper in brown ink and all the photos are sepia or muted tones, but it works brilliantly as a whole. I read it just like a novel. It also has a built in ribbon bookmark! Yay! all my faves have bookmarks, and lots have some kind of tactile element on the cover. Fabric and embroidery on 'Maggie's Harvest' by Maggie Beer; squishy vinyl cover on 'Plenty' by Yotam Ottolenghi- once I picked both of these up there was no putting them back on the bookstore shelf even though they were both quite expensive. Julie Dupleix does good little recipe stories and in her book 'Old Food' she gives such beautifully written thoughts at the beginning on each chapter I get all weepy! I just may email her 'breakfast' blurb to you (too long for here); so special. Good luck with the endeavour!

Jasper said...

The movie ruined the heart and soul of Under The Tuscan Sun, but that book, and the second, Bella Tuscany are lovely, and filled with recipes, I can read and re-read and dog ear, etc, etc and the accounts of her sights, sounds, and tastes of her life are immersing. happy thoughts towards your endeavors!

Leo said...

I don't know how I found your blog but once I did I was hooked! I've never been to LRBC since I live in Encinitas but I have enjoyed all the photos and your stories.
One of my favorite cookbooks is Rebar from the Rebar restaurant in Victoria, B.C.
Simple recipes, great photos and stories behind the food.
I wish you much luck, you're a great writer and I look forward to may more blog posts!

schmadzie said...

yeah I would have to agree that a memoir type book would be real interesting to me. the best cookbooks are stories with a few recipes thrown in to illustrate a point. Not many people have the great stories/storytelling to go. the small business dream especially a cafe is the dream of so many people.

Anonymous said...

I love to read cookbooks to be inspired. I love lucious photos, smart text, and great recipes that I will go to again and again. Nigella Lawson's How to Be A Domestic Goddess is one of my favorites for just these reasons.

Good luck on the book, I can't wait to read it!

Kendal said...

The Real Dirt on Vegetables! by Farmer John. It's one of my favorite cookbooks not only because it has great tasty recipes organized by season and vegetable, but because in all the margins and between seasons and vegetables there are little stories, quotes, photos, etc that give life to the community of the angel farms (not sure if that's even the name...) CSA. They threw in a little bit of everything with Farmer John's charisma to tie it all together. I could totally see your book having a similar spirit...but whatever you do I will buy copies for me and all my dearest ones. So happy this road has opened up for you and wish you a constant stream of inspiration to draw from.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fellow nopo denizen who sadly only had the opportunity to go to the cafe three times. But I read your blog often and am selfishly hoping that you'll be able to publish a book AND open up a new cafe that I can hopefully visit more frequently.

Here's another vote for a memoir/cookbook that revolves around LRBC - how it came to be, the ups & downs of being cafe owners, favorite recipes, etc. I like the Ruth Reichl format, but I also like what did with Under the Tuscan Sun, where you've got essentially two mini-eensy-cookbooks amid the other chapters. If you guys decide to go with a more cookbooky-book, it would be neat to see something along the lines of the New Vegetarian Epicure... lots of personal stories mixed in with recipes.

Wishing you all the best - thank you so much for all the hard work you do in sharing your passion for food with random people like me. Your cooking inspires my own, and your self-motivation can give me the kick in the ass that I sometimes need.

Anonymous said...

I've been a customer, in my 60's, and suggest some (old)favorite cookbooks that combine, as you seem to want to, real meaning/story/content/love with receipes: Tassahara Breadbook; Supper of the Lamb (Robert Capon); The Urban Peasant (James Barber). All the best to you!

thesmallviking said...

ali - i think my favorite thing about the way you cook (well, besides local, fresh, etc) is that you always take something normal and make it so exciting! i loved the regular menu items, but the specials were amazing.

an idea for the book would be to showcase those unexpected ingredients you use to make the basics totally UNbasic. your ideas for combining flavors are always accessible, but i would never have thought do them myself. like if the book had a "section" on... waffles for example: basic waffle recipe, and then 5 ways to top/flavor them in unexpected ways. or maybe you do 4 seasonal variations? i still dream of the rosemary waffles topped with egg the day after thanksgiving!

this formula works for other items like your grilled cheese (pimentos? what? but SO good). your ice cream flavors... i'm getting hungry just thinking about walking over to the cafe!

anyhow - i think that's part of why i think people always came back, and part of why cooking at home is so boring. i get into a rut and make it the same all the time, i forget to experiment.

welcome home, and let me know if i can help you put that into visuals!