When I hear financial pundits counsel unemployed people over 50 to start a business if they can’t find a job, I think of the last time I tried to go entrepreneurial. This was not an experience for the faint of heart.
The idea sounded good at the time. I was in my early 30s and the magazine I’d been editing had just folded. The last thing I wanted to do was sign up for another intense 9-to-5 job. So when my friend, Barbara, asked me if I was interested in publishing a book on Irish cuisine, I jumped at the chance.
O.K., it wasn’t a book exactly, more like a booklet. Barbara had a read story about a woman who made a killing on recipe booklets that she marketed with classified ads in the National Enquirer and thought, Why not me? After all, her Grandmother Lynch had left her a box full of recipes, which, Barbara assured me, had been the talk of the lace-curtain set in Pittsburgh.
Forget that the phrase “Irish cuisine” is an oxymoron. There’s not much you can do with potatoes, oats and ox blood. In fact, TitanicAwards.com recently surveyed 2,000 people from 80 countries and concluded that Ireland had the seventh worst cuisine in the world, which seemed surprisingly high to me. The only comfort for Irelandophiles like Barbara and me was that the United Kingdom was first on the list.
Lesson One: Make sure the pig Is in the pen before you invite the guests.
In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to examine the recipes before we took the leap, but we had more important things to worry about. Our first move was to purchase a book–through an ad in the National Enquirer, of course,–on how to get rich selling booklets in the National Enquirer. The main thing I remember was the author’s list of “secret power words” to use on the cover, two of which were “secret” and “power.” Ah-ha. We had our surefire, million-dollar title: Grandma Lynch’s Secret Irish Recipes. What the Get Rich booklet failed to point out, however, was that “grandma” and “Irish recipes” were on the secret un-powerful words list.
Lesson Two: Don’t pull the trigger until you’ve counted your bullets.
The smart thing would have been to create a business plan before we spent our first penny. That might have prevented us from making our next blunder: shelling out the rest of our budget–$600—on a four-line classified ad in—where else?–the Enquirer. Naturally that was before we discovered that Grandma Lynch’s recipes were not as “secret” as we originally assumed. To make the booklet even vaguely live up to its promise, we set up a test kitchen and tried to add a few French and Italian flourishes to Grandma’s lifeless recipes. We even invented a few new dishes, including one of the most godawful concoctions in the history of this godforsaken cuisine: Chicken Delehanty (a.k.a. Drunken Chicken with raspberry jam and Irish whiskey).
Lesson Three: Never confuse a hunch with a hope.
The final product was a lovely booklet with ten kitchen-tested recipes, ranging from Irish Stew Pittsburgh Style to Tipperary Cheesecake, plus charming tidbits of culinary wisdom from Grandma herself. In a moment of Irish chutzpah, I bought a kit for making Irish Mist liqueur, but the results were so vile, we decided to leave that recipe out of the book.
Our first order came from Lucy Cohen from Boynton Beach, Florida. The price was $2.25 (including shipping and handling). Two more orders came later that week, and then the mail stopped. That was it: a grand total of $6.75. In the end, I didn’t have the heart to cash any of the checks.
After the shock wore off, I calculated the damage:
Booklet on How to Get Rich $4.95
Ad in the Enquirer 600.00
Books on Irish cooking 23.00
Food for test kitchen 285.00
Bottle of Irish whiskey 18.00
Irish Mist DYI kit 14.95
Design and production 40.00
Bottom line: Before you take the plunge, do the math.
When I look back at this fiasco, I think of what that famous Irish risk-taker James Joyce once said: “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” Yes, we lost a chunk of change on this ill-conceived project, but we picked up a lifetime of wisdom along the way.
Shortly after we closed shop, I became a freelance writer and one of my first assignments was interviewing M.F.K Fisher, author of How to Cook a Wolf and other classics. When I told her our story, she joked about her live-in Irish grandmother who thought that bland, unseasoned food was good for your health. As a girl, Fisher got so sick of her grandmother’s wretched nettle soup, she prayed for her to go on long vacations.
After the interview, I sent Fisher a copy of our recipe booklet as a token of appreciation. A few days later I received a note from her praising the booklet, saying it reminded her fondly of her grandmother.
No doubt, she meant to be ironic, but it didn’t matter. Winning praise from the world’s greatest food writer—even it was a tad left-handed–made the whole misadventure worthwhile.