Updated: 4 days ago
Phyllis Good is the New York Times best-selling author behind dozens of cookbooks, which have sold more than 14 million copies to date, including her popular Fix-It and Forget-It series.
Phyllis' newest cookbook, No Recipe? No Problem! will be released on May 11, and is currently available for pre-order here.
Phyllis recently sat down with Eat Like a Writer to discuss her accidental entry into writing cookbooks, and how her most popular cookbook series came about because another author missed her deadline.
Have you always been a writer?
I'm sort of an accidental writer. I've always loved books. I was a great reader. I still love to read, probably more than almost anything else. I assumed I'd be an English teacher. And that's what my training is in, and I did that for a while.
My husband Merle and I are in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area, which is a travel destination for several reasons, because of Amish and Mennonite living here, and also because of its beautiful countryside, farming and great food.
We ran a summer theater. My husband's a writer and wrote plays. We had a sort of interpretation center related to the Amish and Mennonites. Through that, I discovered how many people want to take something home with them after they visited this community.
So, I thought about doing a cookbook, but I’m not a trained chef.
I mean, I used to just know the basic stuff. Many of the cookbooks that I consulted presumed that I had a basic understanding of cooking, and I didn't. Growing up, I was around a lot of good food. My mom, dad, and grandmother loved to cook. I think I was glib, you know. It was sort of like, well, it seems like there's plenty of food. I don't need to worry.
So, what did you do?
What I was imagining was gathering recipes from good local cooks who made the very dishes that people from New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Baltimore, drove to Lancaster for. So that’s what I did.
I supplied the book to the local country store, and the books sold extremely well, which led me to do more.
My husband and I formed a small publishing company, and have since spent most of our lives as published writers and authors. I’ve done other writing as well, but what really scored for us was the Fix-It and Forget-It series of cookbooks, which first published in 2000.
What was the inspiration for Fix-It and Forget-It?
Fix-It and Forget-It was all slow cooker recipes, but I had never used a slow cooker.
What happened was, we had an author lined up for a spring title, but she wasn’t going to make her deadline. So, I told my husband that we needed to find a backup idea. One of our staff members suggested a slow cooker cookbook. It was just about the time slow cookers had been re-introduced, they were shaped like an oval, you could lift out the crock, and they were being promoted as more convenient.
I ended up doing eight books in the Fix-It and Forget-It series, and sold 14 million copies.
And you never used a slow cooker before you wrote the first one?
No. I used the same practice as my first cookbook. I developed a network of good cooks, via invitation only, and selectively built a list through the years, gathering recipes from them. And I think that was probably the thing that I became really good at--spotting a good recipe, knowing how to enhance it and make it even better, and then forming those recipes into collections.
I've always loved food, always loved to cook. Once I got started, and to my husband's credit, he was a great audience, encouraging me along the way.
You’ve been on QVC, too, right? How did that happen?
Yes, I’ve been on QVC, I would guess, 40 times. They sold hundreds of thousands of the Fix-It and Forget-It books, which are sort of a perfect niche for their market. My husband is a great salesperson and is the one who approached QVC with the idea. Most recently, I was on QVC via Zoom with a book called 5-Ingredient Natural Recipes, and I’m scheduled to go back in April for No Recipe? No Problem!
What’s the goal with your cookbooks?
I want to make it possible for people who want to eat at home, but their lives are chaotic. I want to find a way to make it possible for them to do that successfully and do it in a good way. You know, healthy, nutritious food, and yet, I'm not a purist. I mean, I care deeply about nutritious food, but sometimes, you just have to open a can and put something in that you didn't grow in your own garden. Your higher goal is to eat around the table as a family or as a household.
I also love making people feel like they're part of a cooking community. When I bring out a book, I always give attribution and say who the recipe was from. Often, we'll invite comments from these cooks and people read them and say that they feel like the cooks are with them when they’re cooking. That was quite a revelation to me.
What is No Recipe? No Problem! about?
For No Recipe? No Problem!, I reached out to 14 improvisational cooks to have them share what they’d do in certain circumstances with different ingredients. They share inspiration for anyone who is interested in cooking or food. It’s the book I’m most excited about at the moment.
I think people are exhausted and tired of cooking. And if I can bring them some joy and have people see fresh possibilities and realize that they're capable of cooking, that's what I think has me very excited. It feels timely in so many ways, and I love the sharing of ideas that goes on in this book.
What is an improvisational cook?
When you cook freestyle, or improvisationally, you let the ingredients lead, instead of a recipe. You ask yourself, what am I hungry for, what do I have on hand, and how much time do I have? It’s a different way to think about ingredients, what they do, and how they contribute to what you’re making. It’s about building confidence by adding a spice you think might work into the corner of the pot and tasting it before adding it to the entire pot.
With so much cookbook success, and your own publishing company, do you still feel there are hurdles to jump over when you release a new book?
As cooking has become so popular, there is huge competition these days to find a niche, to find an audience, and to connect. I think there are a lot of people who are intimidated. They're charmed by the TV stars and by the celebrity cooks, but they're also intimidated by cooking. And so I just keep reassuring people that it's about the experience of enjoying the food itself. I want people to focus on a happy family and friends at the end, not about wearing themselves out to impress people.
So, I think seeing food as a resource to not only feed people, but to feed relationships, is something that I am as committed to as ever. And I think it's maybe more needed than ever. So I try to make food accessible, make recipes accessible, and encourage people to bring out their own creativity. Succeeding at that is probably the greatest hurdle that I feel these days.
What’s your favorite way to cook?
I like to saute and grill, because you can do things fairly quickly, and I enjoy food that’s fresh and pure.
Any advice for aspiring cookbook authors?
As I mentioned, it’s hard work to connect with your readers, unless you have a ready-made audience. If you have a very active social media following, then I think you're well on your way. Or, if you have a good cooking community that you're part of and can figure out how to break through with all the other options that people are having thrust at them, you're in a good place.
But, I think it’s harder than ever to be discovered and to break through, because the competition is so intense between social media itself and the networks and channels and all of that. It's really difficult, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try, and there's always room for surprises.
Do you have a cookbook, or aspire to write one? Let us know in the comments!