The recipe Fanny Slater used to enter the Great American Cookbook Competition is the same one that helped her win—a simple breakfast sandwich her dad used to make, jazzed up with a little orange, lavender and fig jam.
It’s no surprise, then, that the winning combination would become the title of her grand prize—a cookbook through celebrity chef Rachael Ray’s publishing company. In 2014, Ray staged the national challenge, which included head-to-head cooking competitions on her daytime talk show.
“Orange, Lavender and Figs,” which came out March 1, is a quiet reference to the deep connection Slater feels between family and food. Slater will celebrate the release at a special book signing event Saturday at Wilmington Brewing Company. The brewery has crafted a special batch of Orange, Lavender and Fig Saison for the occasion.
“I grew up in a food-centric family, the kind that when we were eating breakfast, we were talking about what we were making for dinner. Most families when they go on vacation talk about what they’re going to do; we talked about where we were going to eat,” Slater recalled. “Everything revolved around food growing up…That is what inspires my cooking today. I realized at some point that everything I was doing in the kitchen seemed to be a spin-off of something from my childhood.”
That realization became the concept Slater pitched to the Great American Cookbook Challenge in what was then called “Tastes Like Childhood,” a collection of tried-and-true family recipes given a dash of Slater’s personal flare. It was an idea that got the attention of Ray and helped sky rocket the then 28-year-old Slater to the first place spot.
Although the title has since changed the theme remains intact. In fact, “Orange, Lavender and Figs” gives a nod to Slater’s parents—her father is known for cooking with citrus and her mother, for dabbing on lavender essential oil. And a fig is among Slater’s favorite flavors.
“It’s based exactly on what I brought to the cookbook competition. A lot of people wondered if they were going to change it but I really got to do exactly what I wanted,” Slater noted.
Wanting to give more than just cooking instructions, Slater shares, with signature wit and charm, the stories behind the recipes.
“The stories all ended up being funny,” she said, laughing. “It was really fun to do but it took a lot of concentration…Other than food and cooking and loving to be on camera and in front of people, I always thought I could count writing in my skill set.”
The self-taught chef—who never had much interest in a restaurant gig—is, indeed, a practiced wordsmith, penning her own food blog and as former local food writer. But writing about other people, she said, was a little easier than talking about herself.
“I tried to be mindful of what I was writing so it came across in a way that is witty and funny and interesting. But it was equally as difficult a process as writing the recipes themselves,” Slater said.
She was also careful to craft her pieces so as to be easily relatable.
“I know not everybody grew up having a Cornish hen on a Tuesday night,” she said. “There is a lot of myself in the stories but what I hope people relate to is that I think that everybody has their own set of food memories, even if it was something like, every Monday night we ordered pizza.”
That’s important message for Slater, who believes tapping into those memories is a good first step on the path to finding culinary passion.
“I hope [the cookbook] inspires people to go back to their own memories, to experience that nostalgia and remind themselves of wonderful times surrounded by food, to take something and put their own spin on it,” she said.
“Oranges, Lavender and Figs” is designed that way, with about 150 straightforward recipes that can be followed to the letter or played with and changed around a bit. There are also cross reference guides that allow you to combine parts of different recipes into a whole new creation.
“A lot to knowing how to cook is about just teaching people to swap in ingredients to enhance food,” Slater said. “These recipes are approachable…That makes me feel really good because I wanted to make sure I was doing something that wasn’t going to be intimidating. I think everyone from a starter to a chef would enjoy these recipes; they’re very user-friendly.”
Slater’s approach to food and cooking has spilled over into how she is handling publicity for her book. The Wilmington Brewing Company event arose simply from a connection to the local brewery, a favorite of Slater’s watering holes. When one of the owners suggested making a beer flavored to match Slater’s cookbook, it gave her the idea to take an out-of-the-box approach to appearances rather than just go the traditional bookstore route.
She has planned stops across the state but she will back in April for a signing at her Goat and Compass, her “home bar” and the place she first met her boyfriend.
“I need to share my story in a way that is very Fanny,” she said. “And very Fanny usually involves food and beer.”
There will be plenty of both on hand Saturday at Wilmington Brewing Company, 824 S. Kerr Ave. The signing event runs from noon to 3 p.m. and features the special Saison, as well as Stevie Mack’s International Food Company. The food truck will offer up its traditional menu of unique fusion recipes, with some of Slater’s own recipes thrown in the mix. Pomegranate Books will have copies of “Oranges, Lavender and Figs” available for purchase onsite.
For more information, visit the “Orange, Lavender and Figs” Facebook event page.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.