Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel had a clear idea of how they wanted their novel-slash-cookbook, The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship, to look. They pictured a beautifully designed hardcover, color throughout, incorporating recipes and other illustrations with narrative text. Although the book—which celebrates women’s friendships and the place of food in our lives—would seem to be a shoo-in for reading groups, traditional publishers bucked at Israel (pictured at left) and Garfinkel’s (right) vision. So the two Brooklynites decided to publish it themselves, and founded Polhemus Press.
PW: Tell me about your book.
NG: This book is told in a variety of narrative voices, through e-mails, letters, documents, third person narration and photographs. And it’s a novel cookbook. It’s not just a novel that has three or four recipes in it. We loved Heartburn [by Nora Ephron] but it only had a handful of recipes.
AI: Same goes for Like Water for Chocolate [by Laura Esquivel]. But this is very much a novel with plot and characters, and it’s a very substantial cookbook.
NG: The recipes were developed in tune with the moment in time that the character is experiencing. We have early kid recipes in the early years—so there’s [nothing with arugula because there was] no arugula in 1961.
AI: The recipes become sophisticated as the characters grow. It culminates with a very fun menu people can use in a party.
PW: Have either of you worked in publishing before?
AI: No. We’ve both written for magazines and written books, but we’ve never worked at a publishing house. Both of our experiences on some level informed us on some level of how things worked.
PW: Did you look for a traditional publisher for The Recipe Club?
AI: We flirted with that for awhile and explored it early on. We got three offers from different places, but it was clear to us they didn’t want to produce a book that would look and feel like this one did.
NG: One of my personal obsessions is type. I wanted the book to look readable and interesting. We weren’t going to be getting that [at a traditional publishing house]. Everyone was using cheap paper, [printing in] black and white.
AI: A colorful book is expensive to produce. The knee jerk reaction [from publishers] was, “No, we can’t do that.” It led to us thinking, if we do this ourselves we’ll come up with what we want. When we were writing the book, we had no inclination that we’d later be publishing books. But we wanted more control over what we were doing.
NG: The traditional publishing model is one that puts a lot of attention on a handful of top-level books. There’s a gigantic and neglected midlist. There seems to be a huge amount of waste in that model. We wanted to do something different. We want every book to feel like it’s at the top of the list. That’s what we anticipate doing.
PW: Do you have plans for more Polhemus books?
AI: We have other fiction ideas, and we’ve been hearing from people who are interested in having their books published by us.
NG: It’s premature, but we have stuff in the pipeline. We consider ourselves a boutique publishing company. Our book is as handmade-y looking as it can be. We like that look and hope to have other books that have that.