Once upon a time there was a set of cookbooks that featured cuisines of the world. These collectibles, published by Time-Life half a century ago, written by experts and including travelogues, are the inspiration for Ten Speed’s new World Food book series, the brainchild of writer, editor, and food cognoscente James Oseland.
The first book, publishing in November, is Mexico City, where Oseland lived for over a year researching, connecting with local cooks, and developing 75 recipes in the apartment kitchen he turned into a professional workspace.
“The idea of focusing on world food has been percolating since I was a teenager,” he says. “It’s a continuation of the work I’ve always sought to do, and it’s been ages since someone endeavored to present the inspiring connectivity of the world’s cuisines. And what better way to understand a people and a culture than through their food? Food,” he adds, “is the essence of culture, embracing history and traditions.”
It’s serendipitous that Mexico City is the first entry in the series. When Oseland was 17, he took a road trip with his father. They stopped in Mexico City. “It was my first time out of the country,” he says. “And it changed my life.”
Oseland’s goal now is “to codify the world’s cuisines, to make them accessible in one clear voice,” he says, adding that “each cuisine has building blocks. When you learn them, you become not only a better cook but a citizen of the world. There’s a startling connection in cooking techniques across all cuisines.”
Oseland took his idea for World Food to agent Doe Coover, founder and owner of the Doe Coover Agency in Massachusetts. “My observation was that food books focus on trends and celebrity,” Oseland says. “I wanted to connect to something greater than just a recipe.”
Coover had sold Oseland’s book, Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, a memoir with recipes of his time living in Southeast Asia, which won a James Beard Award. “I knew he had a talent for food,” Coover says of considering Cradle of Flavor in 2001. (Oseland’s résumé could take up this whole article: editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, food journalist, photographer, judge on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, author of the memoir Jimmy Neurosis [Ecco Press, 2019].) The question for Coover was, could Oseland write? “I’m a sucker for good writing,” Coover says. “Then I saw the draft for Cradle of Flavor and I knew he could write.”
“James and I met for lunch in December 2015 in Boston’s South Street Station to discuss World Food,” Coover says. Oseland delivered a draft by spring 2016. “There was a lot of interest,” Coover says. “I talked to the usual suspects. Ten Speed made a competitive bid and were excited to have the books.”
Hannah Rahill bought the World Food series when she was publishing director at Ten Speed (the 2016 contract is for four volumes; the next one will be Paris, publishing in fall 2021); now Lorena Jones heads up an editorial team to oversee the books.
“There hasn’t been anything like this since the Time-Life series, which was loved among chefs and highly collectible,” Jones says. “This is a modern version, more stylized. It’s armchair travel along with cooking.” She adds, “These books will fill all the gaps: food, culture, travel. The plan is one volume at a time from around the world. And no two books will be the same. Every book will have its own identity, beautifully illustrated.” (Mexico City has gorgeous photos of the city, the food, the cooks—as will all the books in the series.) As for marketing amid the ongoing pandemic, Jones says, “Plans will be fluid, but we anticipate virtual events and a satellite tour.”
“In home cooking,” Oseland says, “the real truth is revealed: how your mother cut the basil...”—I tell him how my mother rolled each individual leaf, then sliced it in strips. “Everyone has the capacity to make a recipe. It’s a remarkable and joyous inclusive process,” he continues. “My hope is that the series conveys that.”
Coover, meanwhile, found the whole set of Time-Life cookbooks at a garage sale 20 years ago, all 27 of them. “You want them all?” her husband asked, astounded.
What a question. “Of course!” Coover said.