I’ve been a professional recipe tester for over twenty years, and the question I’m asked most often is, How did you get started?
I got started in this career by accident. I had a degree in Anthropology and worked for seven years as an archeologist, traveling around the United States to work at prehistoric and historic sites. But when I got married I began living in New York City (a block from where I’d grown up), and within a few years I found myself with an infant and a toddler and no desire to work the irregular hours that are usually required of archeological field work.
One day my husband, who was a book publisher, mentioned casually that one of the cookbook editors was looking for someone to test a few recipes from a manuscript that had been submitted, just to see if they were any good. I immediately said that I wanted the job. It’s not a job, he explained, just a few recipes to test over a few days. I insisted that he tell her I wanted to do it, and she called the next day to say she was sending over a handful of recipes. All I had to do was cook them and give her a call to say how I liked them. I would be paid generously per recipe and reimbursed for ingredients.
I cooked the recipes and made notes. I wanted to be professional, so I typed up my comments, about a page for each recipe, and then faxed them to the editor. She was surprised at my industriousness and pleased with my opinions. She sent me more recipes from manuscripts under consideration, then, finding my comments helpful, she began sending me recipes from manuscripts under contract. For the next two years I spent my days with my little boys and, late at night, while my husband read manuscripts of novels at his desk, I cooked.
I wasn’t an expert cook, I had no formal training. But I was a competent home cook, the person the cookbooks were written for. It was before the Internet, and when I had a question I had no choice but to confess my ignorance to the author of the recipe. I learned about cooking by asking questions of brilliant young food writers who were happy to talk about their favorite subject.
If I didn’t understand something, it told an author that something might be lacking in his or her work. I came across an instruction to “roll out the pasta,” and I was stumped. What did that mean? I had never rolled pasta before. I called the author of the (later award-winning) cookbook and she realized she had some re-writing to do.
Not all the authors were brilliant. It was a time when I learned to trust my instincts. I was given a recipe to test that called for fresh coconut. The instructions were to pierce the eyes of the coconut with an ice pick, then place the coconut in a bowl and microwave it until it cracked. I had an uneasy feeling as I followed the directions. Before turning on the microwave oven, I led my children into the hallway outside the kitchen. I turned on the microwave, ran into the hall, and a minute or so later a blast rocked the apartment, delighting the children (who swear they still remember this). The coconut had exploded, demolishing the bowl it had been in and blowing open the door of the oven.
Writers were sometimes unsure of how to react to the news that someone was “testing” their recipes. They assumed it meant judgment and wanted to know who was doing the judging. It’s true that I was learning on the job, but it required no special training to pick up on most flaws. There was a book of soups in which many required 2 quarts of chicken broth. The problem was, the recipe for broth made 1 1/2 quarts.
There was a recipe for a thick stew that called for whole olives with pits. I made the recipe as described – older and wiser, I would not do so now – and my husband nearly broke a tooth.
And there were beautiful moments now and then. The pleasure of bringing golden loaves of bread from the oven, the experience of exploring an unfamiliar market, the giddy fun of taking, at midnight, a tray of freshly made, chocolate-dipped profiteroles to the baffled Polish-speaking night staff of my building – because the cream-filled puffs wouldn’t keep even until morning. And a memory of standing at the kitchen window, having been up cooking literally all night, and realizing that the sun was coming up as I used a crochet hook to make small burrs over the last of dozens of chocolate-covered candies designed to look like real-life chestnuts.